Human Puppets / by Andreas Kopriva

The most paradoxical thing about Anomalisa is that, despite it being a stop-motion animation film wholly inhabited by practically identical-looking puppets, it ends up being one of the most human films I have had the privilege of watching this past year. It's the brainchild of Charlie Kaufman, author of quirky existential classics such as 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind', 'Being John Malkovich' and 'Adaptation' with him assuming the roles of both writer and director (along with Duke Johnson - stop motion specialist), a combination not attempted since 'Synecdoche, New York' in 2008. 

The way Anomalisa came to be is an interesting story, as it was originally a stage play part of composer Carter Burwell's Theatre of the New Ear in 2005 starring David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tom Noonan and a series of foley artists creating sound effects live of stage. When approached to turn it into an animation, Kaufman appeared to be sceptical as the dynamics of the live show would be difficult to replicated, considering that it involved Tom doing all the voices except the main characters, and included a scene with David and Jennifer having sex by standing across from each other and moaning. The disconnection would have been difficult to translate in a more visual medium such as an animation which lead to a reinvention in everything but the script. The film was crowdfunded in September 2012 and premiered in select theatres in December of 2015. 

To start off, I need to begin with the actual look of the film and the creation of highly realistic looking puppets which appear to have been an initial concern as they were fears that they would fall in the uncanny valley and end up being alienating to an audience. Upon watching the film, I can see where those concerns stemmed from, and though they appear unnerving at times, the combination of stop-motion (opposed to CGI for example) and the overall vibe of the film, it works tremendously well especially considering the plot.

You see, the film revolves around Michael Stone, an author who specializes in customer service who is on his way to a conference in Cincinnati, and who appears to be living a very mundane life where everyone appears to be the same with the same monotonous voice (much like the play, everyone but Michael and Lisa, is voiced by Tom Noonan). 

The mundane nature of Michael's perception is further accentuated through these hyper-real puppets, which at times even show cracks around the face. As the movie progresses, we are afforded insight to a severely damaged persona - someone who appears to have been engulfed by ennui primarily due to being afflicted by the Fregoli delusion. There is an acknowledgment from Michael that his life has gone stale, something which becomes more and more evident through his attempts to reconnect with past lovers and in the way that he speaks to his wife. 

All that appears to change when he overhears a female voice amidst the monotonous male voices while waiting on room service. Rushing to get dressed after just getting out of the shower, he begins knocking on doors until he stumbles unto the room containing Emily and Lisa, two customer support reps who would be attending his seminar the next day. 

It is through the interaction and escalation of the relationship between Michael and Lisa where the humanity of the film shines through. Up until this point, the film's pacing is deliberately slow and replete with mundane activities and dialogues with people who are presented as fixated on the inane minutae of every day life, affording them an unjustified gravity. It's a very Kafkaesque representation of life and, as a result is almost dreary to watch. As soon as Lisa enters the film, the film becomes more vibrant, primarily due to Michael's rediscovered vigor and urgency.

The antithesis between Lisa's fairly regular and uninteresting character and Michael's disproportionate affection and attraction towards her is palpable throughout. He appears completely at awe with this person, even though there appears to be virtually nothing spectacular about her. This interest, and Michael's incessant pursuit peaks during the film's highlight which is the inevitable erotic scene between Michael and Lisa. 

This is, again, a paradoxically human and powerful scene, despite the potential ridiculousness that having a sex scene between puppets could entail. The dialogue and general awkwardness of the encounter is masterfully portrayed, with the scene glowing with sensitivity, warmth and sincere intimacy. 

The third act of the film is, somewhat expected, the most bizarre and potentially nightmarish, as following what is presented as a breakthrough in Michael's condition, ends up being a brief stimulating blip before he spirals into an inevitable breakdown of sorts. It's a sequence characteristic of the tragedy that befalls Kaufmann's characters (like Joel, Jim Carrey's character in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), where a series of apparently obvious and expected results are framed in situations of delusional, surreal peculiarity which end with the characters being in an almost anti-climactic and borderline banal end state. 

I loved this film even though at times it made it somewhat difficult to do so, primarily due to the slow pacing prevalent throughout. Despite that, the deliberate nature of that and the little touches throughout which force you to perceive this person's reality through his eyes, turn it into a masterful character study and beautifully realized drama.