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Telluride Review: Charlie Kaufman’s Marvelously Strange ‘Anomalisa’ is An Animated Identity Crisis

Telluride Review: Charlie Kaufman's Marvelously Strange 'Anomalisa' is An Animated Identity Crisis

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If the confounding twists of “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation” and “Synecdoche, New York” fused with the tone of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and collided with an episode of “Robot Chicken,” the result might resemble the peculiar animated odyssey “Anomalisa.”

Co-directed by Charlie Kaufman and animation director Duke Johnson, the movie boils down Kaufman’s penchant for peculiar soul-searching mind trips into their natural state: A strange audiovisual journey through a troubled mind that’s at once divorced from reality and attuned to its haunting secrets.

Unlike many Kaufman screenplays, “Anomalisa” hits a discombobulating note from the start, when it introduces the brightly colored stop-motion universe of motivational speaker Michael Stone (tenderly voiced by David Thewlis). Michael and everyone in his world are dolls whose motion is relatively fluid, but their faces show the seams of their construction. Even before it careens into an enigmatic series of twists, then, “Anomalisa” hints at the possibility that Michael’s entire existence could collapse at any moment.

Adding to that perception, the movie utilizes a clever gimmick in its voice cast, which features only three actors. The premise comes together fairly quickly: On an airplane from Los Angeles to Cincinatti for a speaking gig, Michael hears the voice of an old lover named Bella who seems to be a woman but speaks like a man.

It doesn’t take long to complicate that equation, as seemingly everyone Michael encounters speaks with the same monotonous voice (Tom Noonan), from an annoying cab driver to the staff at his hotel — not to mention his wife and young child, whom he calls from his room to check in. Michael’s entire world has apparently blended into one boring person.

Eager to change things up, he calls an old lover and meets her for coffee, only to destroy the prospects of reconnecting with an unreasonable proposal. It’s around then, careening around his hallways of his hotel in a desperate bid for companionship, that he finds something different: Lisa, a fan of Michael’s work staying at the hotel in anticipation of his lecture, who sounds different from everyone else (she’s voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh). After a few drinks with Lisa and her roommate, Michael takes Lisa back to his room — and that’s when his problems give way to the inevitable moment in every Kaufman screenplay when a strange set of circumstances get a whole lot stranger.

A disorienting puzzle of a movie with many exhilarating pieces, “Anomalisa” nevertheless maintains a straightforward trajectory involving Michael’s internal strife. As he fights to find a happier direction, pursuing an impossible romance while battling surreal nightmares, “Anomalisa” continues to build its compelling themes. Despite any number of enigmatic ingredients and outrageous twists, it undeniably marks the warmest project in Kaufman’s oeuvre since “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” another movie about a romantically conflicted man struggling with his own fragile psyche.

“Anomalisa” also eloquently addresses the sense of being trapped by larger forces beyond any individual’s control, both in terms of the aging process and society itself. Originally staged as a “sound play” for the Theater of a New Ear project in 2005, the movie maintains that setting, resulting in a subtle period piece about Bush II-era anxieties. Hints of that time, from a first generation iPod to pictures of the sitting president on the wall, reach an apex when Michael delivers his sad, hilarious speech to baffled spectators near the story’s end.

As Michael veers through a series of Kafkaesque misadventures at his hotel, the value of Kaufman’s co-director comes into play: Johnson, perhaps best-known for a “Community” episode made entirely with stop motion, helps bring a hyperreal dimension to many scenes. The animation has a tangible quality, as if Kaufman were actually playing around with his psychologically troubled dolls, and it’s well-suited to imitate the character’s uneasy relationship to his surroundings.

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. 

Still, “Anomalisa” is a frequently hilarious inquiry into solipsistic challenges. The author of the amusingly-titled customer service tome “How May I Help You Help Them?”, Michael seems to have lost track of how to help himself a long time ago. “Look at what is special about each individual,” he proclaims in his final speech, but that registers more like a plea to himself. Yet once “Anomalisa” arrives at a point of profound frustration, it tags on a sunnier epilogue. If Michael remains trapped in a lonely place, it’s not entirely devoid of hope. 

Grade: A-

“Anomalisa” premiered this week at the Telluride Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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