Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Wed Dec 30, 2015 5:23 pm 
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MICHAEL STRONG (VOICED BY DAVID THEWLIS, LISA (VOICED BY JENNIFER JASON LEIGH)

A trip to Cleveland and the well of loneliness

Anomalisa is a stop-motion animated film written by Charlie Kaufman and executed by stop-motion expert Duke Johnson, with puppets voiced by actors. David Thewlis voices Michael Strong, a Brit living in Los Angeles, now on a one-day business trip to Cleveland. A mildly attractive middle aged man who's a client relations guru -- he's written a bestselling book on it -- he's come to address delegates from various companies with one of his “How May I Help You to Help Them?” pep talks. He is married, with a young son. At the hotel, after phoning her, he meets with Bella, an old girlfriend he abandoned eleven years ago. It goes badly. Desperately knocking on doors in the hotel and inviting a couple of women delegates and admirers for drinks, he gets tipsy with a young woman delegate (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) who's deeply impressed by him. He takes her back to his room and seduces her. Afterwards, he falls asleep and has a hallucinatory dream. Next day, his speech goes badly. It becomes a mélange of dreams, doubts, controversial opinions that are booed. He returns home to wife and son. Life returns, apparently, to normal.

If live actors had been filmed performing the script, the effect would probably be quite different. By the way, strictly speaking that would not have been possible, since while Thewlis and Leigh voice the two main characters, Tom Noonan voices all the others, whether they are male or female. That simplifies things; this is a modest production. It's also odd. Is Michael Strong (David Thewlis) married to a man? Is Lisa's female companion on the trip a dykish lesbian? But there's an explanation for this, if we delve into the background of the film. The convention is held, and Strong stays, at the Al Fregoli hotel, which is named for a paranoid delusional condition in which the patient believes everyone else is the same person, plotting against him. Evidently that is happening to Strong -- except for the young woman he seduces -- hence they all have the same voice. And after the magic night, next morning Noonan's voice begins overlapping Lisa's, showing she too is becoming, for him, like everybody else.

All this seems surreal, as does everything in the movie, thanks to the combination of Duke Johnson's "realistic" animation and Kaufman's paroxysm-of-the-banal dialogue. Anomalisa juxtaposes these two qualities of surreal and banal in subject matter and event. As he has done before, Charlie Kaufman thus manages to popularize and make accessible highly cerebral effects from avant-garde theater and anti-naturalistic fiction. He likes to play with a toy world, and his first big success, Being John Malkovich, used stop-motion animation too. Whether you like him or not, he builds a lot of cleverness, intelligence, and originality into a movie that skillfully skirts the mainstream and, this time, teases out a kind of Kafkaesque Willy Loman experience. Mike D'Angelo thinks Kaufman comes close to Barton Fink in "conflating architectural anonymity with existential despair" and "also demonstrates that stop-motion puppets can be alarmingly, rivetingly human."

David Thewlis is remarkable as the Brit resident in Los Angeles, making him into a sympathetically shy, eager, weak, pathetic everyman. And as for Jennifer Jason Leigh, having starred this year not only in this film but also as the chained prisoner in Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight, she has staged a coup that demonstrates dramatically what a gifted and supple actor she is. Her Daisy Domergue and her Lisa could not be more different. The first is a feisty, unrepentant murderess and criminal gang member. The second is a shy, sweet, innocent girl. And both are equally convincing.

The use of puppets vs. real people creates an effect that is surreal through being generic and simplified. It also hovers between the sentimental and the comic. But if it succeeds, it achieves profundity and universality. The jury may still be out on whether that occurs. But due to the skillful use of stop-motion animation, the remarkable simulated spaces, and the fine actors, a special absorbing kind of illusion is neatly created. We are drawn into Kaufman's almost-real toy world. The screenplay flirts deliberately, teasingly -- no doubt for some, hilariously -- with the mediocrity of everyday life. That is clear in the tedious prologue in which Michael Strong must deal with, and we must observe, all the petty details of arriving in a strange city and checking into a hotel, including a lecturing, asthmatic cab driver and an obsequious bellhop who ask overly personal questions, discuss the weather, belabor the obvious, and insist that even if he is only there for one day he must visit the Cleveland Zoo and eat Cleveland chili.

Poor Lisa (Leigh's character) is a naive girl whom Michael persuades, in his hotel room after a few too many drinks, to sing Cindi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." She tells him she likes French and Italian, but not German (it "sounds mean"), and, oh yes, she enjoys listening to Brazilian songs too. And they're in Portuguese, which is odd, because nobody in the rest of South America speaks Portuguese. It's an "anomaly." "I learned that word from your book," she says. So he calls her "Anomalisa." This is how he will remember her, as "Anomalisa." Nothing else will remain.

Anomalisa touches on the themes of the well of loneliness, the longing for love, paranoia, dreams vs. reality. But ostensibly, it's about a business trip to Cleveland. It's a little trip that becomes a pretty big one for two of the people involved. And yet, in the end, life goes on. The mass of men lead lives, etc. Is this a "masterpiece" as the poster pull-quote announces (from Rolling Stone? "A grandiose anomaly" (Télérama)? "A strange existential fable" (Les Inrockuptibles)? Is one ravished? I'm not so sure. But with its hotel seduction by a man on a business trip, including full frontal male nudity and cunnilingus, a peeing puppet and a masturbator observed in an office park, it stands out from the usual animations, that's for sure.

Anomalisa, 90 mins., debuted at Telluride 4 Sept. 2015; other festivals including Venice (where it won the Grand Jury [third] prize), Toronto, London, and Chicago. Limited US release 30 Dec. 2015. Landmark Embarcadero San Francisco from 1 Jan. 2016.

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MICHAEL STRONG (VOICED BY DAVID THEWLIS, LISA (VOICED BY JENNIFER JASON LEIGH)

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