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First Reviews: Charlie Kaufman’s ‘Anomalisa’

First Reviews: Charlie Kaufman's 'Anomalisa'

Charlie Kaufman is one of those legendary American screenwriter/directors that somehow produces fiercely original, personal work and has retained his integrity in a corrupting Hollywood system. He has written critically acclaimed films like Spike Jonze’s “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation,” as well as Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of Spotless Mind,” plus wrote for the cult TV show “Get a Life,” and directed the phenomenal “Synecdoche, New York,” which Roger Ebert himself called the best film of the ’00s. Now, he’s back his with second directorial effort, the moody, cerebral “Anomalisa,” a stop-motion animated film about one man’s business trip as he confronts the existential loneliness within his soul. If that’s a bare-bones description of the plot, it’s supposed to be, simply because it’s better to enter into “Anomalisa” with as little information as possible, but there are some things worth mentioning: it stars David Thewlis (“Naked”) as main character Michael, Jennifer Jason Leigh (“Miami Blues”), and Tom Noonan (“Manhunter,” “Synecdoche, New York”), it was initially a “sound play” scored by Carter Burwell before Dino Stamatopolous and Dan Harmon of Starburns Industries convinced him to turn it into a film, especially after a successful Kickstarter campaign, and did we mentioned the stop-motion marionettes? It’s a film that’s both darkly funny and painfully serious, but it also brims with empathy for its main subjects’ fears and desires, and it takes seriously deeply existential questions, like “Who are we?” and “What makes us human?” “Anomalisa” is still seeking U.S. distribution.

Reviews of “Anomalisa”

David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter

Translating a non-visual performance piece to film might have been challenging, but no less than his collaborations with Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry, Kaufman’s work with Johnson has yielded something quite unique, graced by gorgeously plaintive music from Burwell. The naive-style puppet animation has similarities to the Adult Swim series “Moral Orel” and “Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole,” on which Johnson worked, as well as his stop-motion animated episode of “Community” (series creator Dan Harmon is an executive producer here). But there’s something more disquieting about these puppets. Their faces look like vintage marionette dolls, split into two plates, with seams cutting across the eyes and around the hair- and jawlines. And the saggy, puffy imperfections of their bodies, when we see the two key characters naked, are heartbreakingly real.

Erik Kohn, Indiewire

Kaufman’s script maintains a similarly liquid feel, as it veers from deeply weird moments to intimate exchanges. The delectably odd title, a nickname Michael creates for Lisa in the midst of seduction, epitomizes the way “Anomalisa” combines familiar ingredients into a totally fresh blend. Every moment threatens to shift from one tone to another, most prominently during a sex scene that could devolve into slapstick at any moment — but instead reveals something much more touching.

David Ehrlich, Little White Lies

Set in 2005, perhaps in order for the story to anticipate the age of social media further confusing our sense of personhood, “Anomalisa” is, for all of its hilarious weirdness, a profoundly unifying experience — Michael, so trapped in his shell, is never more one with the world than when he glumly confesses that he “Might have psychological problems.” Kaufman’s gift for mining shared experiences from private torments makes this movie as honest and unique a heartbreaker as any he’s previously written or directed. Who else could manage to wring tears (among other fluids) from an amputated Japanese sex doll? Who else would try? Charlie Kaufman is back. It’s good to hear his voice.

Catherine Shoard, The Guardian

“Anomalisa” is a movie with wit to burn (look out for the Sarah Brightman line and the meeting room pit) and enough incidental touches that the total achievement feels immense. It’s more mainstream than much of Kaufman’s previous: there’s little of the meta, no distracting stars, no distancing in-jokes. Rather, it’s interested in a world many of us inhabit. In the excitement of recognizing someone who might be like us in the landscape – as well as how it looks when that connection crumbles, and how it feels to be isolated by deep depression. Life is lonely and cold, it says, leavened only briefly, if you’re lucky. Happiness is transient. Love an anomaly. We’re lucky such art as this is not.

Fred Topel, Crave Online

Anomalisa” is a very adult drama, but there is a sort of “Team America” factor that the film gets out of the way early. An animation scholar can correct me, but I believe this is the first stop-motion animated dildo ever in a film. All that silliness is to get it out of our system. Yes, we’re looking at naked puppets, so what? By the time Michael meets Emily and Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), they’re having mature adult flirtations, especially when he connects with Lisa. (Spoiler alert: her name is part of the title.) The film goes far in its depiction of adult relationships, and it completely works. It would be interesting to show someone the second half of the movie out of context and see if it still works. I bet it would, but there is something to indulging any skeptics with a misdirect in the first act. The Charlie Kaufman touchstones are certain male neuroses and a certain ambiguity with the reality of the film. It resonates just as deeply and the conceit works as powerfully as “Synecdoche, New York”; “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” or “Adaptation.” Co-director Duke Johnson and the animators of Starburns Industries proved a fruitful partnership as they matched sensibilities and pulled it off flawlessly.

Peter Debruge, Variety

Working on a fraction of the budget of last year’s po-mo “The Lego Movie,” “Anomalisa” likewise embraces the limitations of its “cast” — although there are other glitches still to be ironed out, including a weird rippling effect that appears across the faces in most scenes. Perhaps the inks weren’t consistent, or maybe slight differences in position between one faceplate and the next bounced the light differently. Whatever the cause, the resulting flicker distracts from what we should be looking at — which is how wonderfully expressive these otherwise rudimentary foot-tall puppets manage to be. As when Wes Anderson dabbled in stop-motion for “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” it’s a strange medium in which to find a perfectionist. But that’s life, which, ironically, Kaufman and company seem to have done a fine job of conjuring in this most artificial of formats.

Lee Marshall, Screen Daily

The animated form of the film is central to its effect – puppets (remember the Heloise and Abelard marionettes from “Being John Malkovich”?) are especially weird when they behave like real people, Kaufman reminds us, because they tend to exaggerate the mundane by turning it into a sort of ritualistic theatre. And these puppets are particularly disconcerting: realistic, down to Michael’s saggy paunch and genitalia, yet with the cracks between their facial plates still visible, so that the forehead and lower face are separated by a line at eye height, with both divided, mask-like, from the back of the head. Less convincing is the device of having every character who is not Michael or Lisa voiced, in the same male, mid-American accent, by Tom Noonan. Yes, we get that life, and people, have become colorless for Michael, hence his fascination with the voice of the only woman who sounds different to him – but it’s still a technique that probably worked better on stage, where the actors were visible, than it does here. Carter Burwell’s score is a delight, sometimes tuning cheekily into the hotel’s own muzak, but in other places underlining the poignancy that is at the heart of a film which, more than Kaufman’s previous work, seems to trade chords with Wes Anderson in his more humanistic, least whimsical moments. That said, there’s also a fair bit of painful-to-watch awkwardness here which recalls, at times, a British strain of comedy-of-embarrassment, part Mike Leigh, part Ricky Gervais. But it’s difficult to imagine Anderson, Leigh or Gervais crafting one of the most believable sex scenes we’ve seen on screen in recent years – how ironic that it should be acted out by puppets.

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