TIFF 2015: Duke Johnson & Charlie Kaufman's Stop-Motion 'Anomalisa'
by Marco Cerritos
September 20, 2015
As a screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman has crafted some of the best and weirdest cinematic mind trips imaginable. Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are among his best but his work in the director's chair has taken his writing to another level. Synecdoche, New York is a work of soul-searching genius and his latest Anomalisa continues to cement Charlie Kaufman's reputation as one of the greatest filmmakers working today. Originally conceived by Kaufman as a short play to debut in composer Carter Burwell's "Theater of a New Ear," the idea to translate the material to the screen quickly became an option but with a twist.
Instead of a true live action version of his work, Kaufman enlisted stop-motion animator Duke Johnson to co-direct the film using puppets. Strange is par for the course with Charlie Kaufman but like most of his best ideas, they sound ridiculous on paper but become transformative with the right execution.
The animated story begins as Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) arrives in Cincinnati for a work engagement. He's the author of a motivational book called "How May I Help You Help Them?" and judging from the title alone its clear Michael is the one who needs serious help. He's the kind of person who believes in "Fregoli syndrome," a condition where one feels many different strangers are all connected by one single person out to get you. This erratic behavior makes for some of the weirdest and funniest moments of Anomalisa as we see every character surrounding Michael voiced by the same person (that person being Tom Noonan). Young or old, male or female, the same commanding voice drives Michael insane and in need of distraction.
Creeped out but feeling lucky Michael looks up Bella, an old flame he walked out on eleven years prior. She still lives in Cincinnati and in his mind, not looking her up would be a wasted opportunity. In true Kaufman fashion, things don't go well and Michael is left embarrassed and insecure. That is until he quickly rebounds with a new stranger, Lisa. She forms an instant connection with Michael and even better she actually has a natural voice that sets her apart from the Fregoli syndrome. She also threatens to wake Michael out of his emotional coma but in a Charlie Kaufman screenplay, even the most simple acts come with strings attached. Lisa is brought to life by Jennifer Jason Leigh and her voice acting here rivals some of the best live action work we've seen all year.
Anomalisa is a tender work of visual poetry, perfectly in sync with Charlie Kaufman's unique voice. It speaks to the universal truths of love, loss and soul-searching without being obvious or preachy. We all want to be wanted but in Kaufman's world those feelings are expressed realistically rather than superficially. It was hard to imagine he could top his directorial debut Synecdoche, New York but his work here signals he's an artist who is unafraid to jump into the deep end. Anomalisa is one of the best films of the year and will undoubtedly command awards attention.
Marco's TIFF 2015 Rating: A
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