Modern life with its ambitions, relationships and career success contrast with personal angst, malice and disillusion in Charlie Kaufman’s animation for adults. This is a wonderful narrative of personality and personal problems linked with fear, philosophy and romance. With plenty of humour – both light and dark – this story illustrates how one day changes the life of its protagonist when he meets the semi-titular character. In beautifully integrated stop-motion animation that mixes the realistic with surrealistic it utilises its distinctive visual style in an artistic manner that addresses the intellectual yet popular theme of questioning the nature of existence as its protagonist Michael Stone asks, ‘What is it to be human? What is it to ache?’
To others, Michael Stone is the very definition of success although he doesn’t feel that way as time seems to have passed him by, his achievements contradict his internal spirit and his understanding of his own humanity and his relationship with wife is on the rocks. Michael is currently on a trip to Cincinnati – ‘I’m just here for the day’ – on essential business. His profession is that of customer services guru and he is due to deliver a presentation to a huge audience based on his best selling book How May I Help You Help Them? which lures business professionals to his lectures. But his position of authority in this field may not give him any heightened sense of self-esteem of the kind he suggests that his delegates should promote to their customers and clients. He stays at the Fregoli Hotel on the night before the conference. Just down the corridor from his room are two sales reps from Akron: Emily and her friend Lisa Hesselman, both of whom have travelled especially to see Stone’s forthcoming lecture. He enjoys a number of drinks with them in the bar, even if their slightly sycophantic enthusiasm for his work and well thumbed copies of his book cause mild embarrassment. Later, he asks Lisa to join him in his room. Will romance, however brief and however unconventional, blossom in such a short time? And will he buy a toy for his son Henry – maybe something distinctive, ancient and inappropriate?
Like much of Charlie Kaufman’s output Anomalisa is fundamentally different to most mainstream fare. Based upon the play by Francis Fregoli (a ‘nom de stage’ of Kaufman’s) its narrative discusses relationships, ambition and the oddity of contemporary existence which links the protagonists to their past, future and present, rather like the amusingly incongruous concept of Being John Malkovich (1999) or the romantic hullabaloo of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). Again this is about angst-ridden central characters coping with perceptions of their existence. The animated style increases this skewed perspective as the figures initially appear to be highly believable but the eye-lines, here instigated by the necessity of using a modular approach to puppet construction, ensures that the characters appear both real and alien. The unconventional nature of the visual style is complemented by the casting of the voice actors. There are many characters but only three cast members. The central pair Michael and Lisa are played by David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh respectively and everyone else’s performance comes courtesy of Tom Noonan.
This, then, is an unusual Hollywood film in that it is a stop-motion animation targeted specifically for an adult audience. While Eastern European animators such as Jan Svankmajer and Walerian Borowczyk have created marvellous animations for adults and the Japanese anime industry turns out a significant amount of adult-oriented fare, the Western perception of animation is generally that it is aimed for the children’s market. And so it is a delight to see an animation which focuses on physical relationships and existential shenanigans and is far more inclined towards the visual, metaphorical and philosophical conundrums of humanity. So surrealist metaphors for modern angst in a Kafkaesque environment evolve, frame by frame, in a joyfully depressive commentary on our modern age as we move, frame by frame, to an unknown solution.
Extras on the DVD include a fascinating documentary on the making of the film, which show the processes involved in realising the feature (three years in the making) and also includes details of specific aspects of the technical elements, such as creating animated smoke from the never-ending cigarettes to the delicate construction of Stone’s multiple martinis.