Sunday, January 3, 2016

Review: Anomalisa

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
Screenwriter and occasional director Charlie Kaufman has one of the most unique voices in the current cinema. His screenplays for "Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" are among the best of the past 20 years. His directorial work has been a little more hit-or-miss for me. I admired, but never quite warmed to, his acclaimed 2008 film "Synecdoche, NY" and his latest "Anomalisa," which I think is the better of his two directorial efforts, is certainly good, if not great.

To reiterate, it has been said that there are basically seven original movie plots - and then there are Kaufman's works, which defy what we believe a movie can be about. His latest, which happens to be an animated movie co-directed by Duke Johnson that utilizes puppets, is a brief dramedy about a lonely and depressed writer named Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) who spends a soul crushing weekend in Cincinnati, where he is to give the keynote speech at a conference on workplace constructiveness.

Stone, who is British but lives in California with a wife and children who are not seen until the film's culmination, is sad and apparently missing something in his life, so no sooner does he check into his hotel than he is on the phone with an old flame who happens to live in Cincinnati, whom he meets for an extremely awkward drink that lasts a mere matter of minutes.

Shortly thereafter, he weasels his way into the immediate orbit of two women who happen to be attending the conference and, having read his book, are slightly awed by his minor celebrity. One of the women is Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), a painfully shy person whose last romance was many years in the rear view mirror.

Michael not-so-subtly gets Lisa to agree to accompany him to his room, where they talk before engaging in a sex scene - with puppets, mind you - on which much has already been written. If you're thinking the sequence is along the lines of those in "Team America: World Police," you'd be incorrect. Rather than play it for laughs, the coupling of Michael and Lisa is handled with great tenderness and even a touch of melancholy, for both characters are people who feel they do not belong.

Some slight surrealism follows as Michael has a bizarre dream involving the hotel's manager and, after leaving Lisa behind for the moment, he fumbles his way through an awkward speech at his conference. The film, which I've mentioned is a very brief 90 minutes, then comes to a rather brisk end.

If I appreciated the obvious thought and effort that went into "Synecdoche, NY" while not exactly endorsing the picture as a whole, I felt that "Anomalisa" finds Kaufman in a position of slightly increased directorial control, even if the film is narratively more simple. It's a good movie and one that, I believe, does a nice job of capturing the depressive state. The film is thoughtful, funny and occasionally moving.

I still believe that Kaufman's collaborations with other filmmakers - Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, for example - are stronger than his own directorial work, but with "Anomalisa," it strikes me that he is taking a step in the right direction. Kaufman is a singular artist and his sophomore film is certainly of a piece with his overall body of work.

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