‘Anomalisa’ Collapses Beneath the Weight of Itself (FILM REVIEW)

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While screening Anomalisa, the latest effort from that patron saint of indie-weirdness, Charlie Kaufman, I couldn’t help but think back to an earlier work of his, Adaptation. In that film, Nicolas Cage portrays a fictionalized version of the writer struggling to adapt Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, a beautifully written book about orchid poaching in Florida in which nothing much really happens. The lack of any real action sends fictional Kaufman on an existential journey full of doubt and dread, crippling his ability to meet his deadlines. It struck me as notable, watching Anomalisa, because the real life Kaufman seems to have moved on from those fears. No longer does Kaufman seem to have any misgivings about writing a script in which nothing much happens; no, he rather seems to have embraced that as his entire oeuvre.

The results, then, are about what you’d expect, just as fictional Kaufman once predicted in Adaptation. It’s hard to keep your audience engrossed in a movie that spins its wheels without ever gaining traction, and it’s hard to stay engrossed in Anomalisa. Here, the writer seems to have confused thematic complexity with narrative urgency and replaced style for substance. On the one hand, I suppose it’s possible to enjoy the movie on a technical level, but it’s just as easy to scoff at for its mind-numbing pretension.

And to be absolutely fair, it’s difficult not to marvel at the technical achievements made by Anomalisa. As a fan of animation in general, the stop motion was breathtaking to behold and the attention to detail simply astonishing. The efforts put into the look of the film are nothing short of exhaustive and painstaking, and as a celebration of the craft, you can’t not praise the film. But never is it enough to sustain the film, and by the end it’s painfully apparent that, technically marvelous or no, the style is little more than a band-aid to cover up an otherwise lackluster narrative.

David Thewlis voices Michael Stone, a customer service guru scheduled to give a speech at a conference in Cincinnati. He lives in a world populated entirely by Tom Noonan, the actor who voices every other character in the film, included Michael’s wife and kids. This is meant to symbolize Michael’s existential crisis as he settles into middle age unfulfilled and unsatisfied. Events and people are all the same in his mind, and he can no longer tell one person apart from another, leaving him utterly alone. That is until he meets Lisa, voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Lisa is a bit of a Michael Stone fangirl, having traveled all the way from Akron just to hear him speak on the wonders of customer service. Meeting someone new and unique is an anomaly—an anomalisa, he says, in a rather on the nose portmanteau—inciting his imagination and giving him hope for a life a little less boring. However, the cycle of existential anguish is not an easy one to break, and it remains to be seen whether Lisa is actually the light at the end of the tunnel.

So here we have a movie about a boring guy trapped in a boring existence. It’s a movie about being bored and it unsurprisingly results in a boring movie. There really is no other way to put it—it’s about as banal and insomnia curing as a three day conference on customer service in Cincinnati.

Oh sure, it’s deep or whatever, I guess. Kaufman does manage to capture the unendurable grief of a life unfulfilled with its endless brooding on the edges of beds in empty hotel rooms. There can be no denying the complexity or universality of the themes Kaufman explores here. In some form or another, I think we’ve all been there. If you haven’t, then let me assure you it’s not very interesting to live through. On that note, nor is it interesting see play out on screen, even if the uninteresting nature of the narrative is hidden behind stunning technical achievements.

The cold hard truth is that theme and technique do not necessarily result in an interesting movie, and if nothing else Anomalisa hammers that point home again and again. There’s just not enough here to maintain any semblance of a narrative worth viewing, even if there are a few moments of sublimation. No, what we have here is a concept deserving of a 30 minute short stretched out to the painful maximum of endurability, and it barely can sustain itself beneath the weight of its conceit. It’s the kind of movie the uninteresting praise as brilliant due mostly to its weirdness, but offers little substance worth remarking upon in actuality. Kaufman, it seems, should take a cue from his fictionalized counterpart and remember that no one particularly cares about a story in which nothing happens. It’s a lesson worth remembering, and I hope he keeps it in mind for his next go around.

Anomalisa is now playing in theaters everywhere.

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