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New Release Review - ANOMALISA

A depressed middle-aged man meets a woman who stands out from the crowd.



Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman

Starring: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan




A puppet performer is capable of giving an expressionless performance, which makes it perfect for a portrayal of a man suffering the sort of ennui portrayed here. They may be a foot tall and made of rubber, but Anomalisa features two of the most human characters you'll see on screen this year.



We've seen a few filmmakers accused of employing gimmicks recently, none more so than Oscar darling Alejandro Inarrittu; did Birdman really need to be shot in what appears to be a long take; did The Revenant have to be shot in natural light at magic hour? Going into Anomalisa I couldn't help asking a similar question - does this story really need to be told through animation? After all, it seems to be a pretty standard indie drama, with nary a talking animal in sight. Having seen Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman's film, I can confirm that animation was the only real choice for this particular tale.
It's the story of a de-motivated motivational speaker, Michael Stone (David Thewlis), who suffers from a curious condition - to his ears, everyone's voice, be they man, woman or child, sounds identical (the single voice is vocally portrayed by the great Tom Noonan). He arrives in Cincinnati for a conference and checks himself into a hotel for what he assumes will be another lonely evening of watching a movie whose characters are vocally indistinguishable, but while in the shower he hears a voice from the corridor outside, a voice that stands out from the rest (that of Jennifer Jason Leigh).
Any director will tell you how difficult it can be to extract a truly neutral look from a human actor; no such problems with a puppet. A puppet performer is capable of giving an expressionless performance, which makes it perfect for a portrayal of a man suffering the sort of ennui Michael Stone is struck by here. Hitchcock always complained about working with method actor Montgomery Clift on I Confess, who could never take a simple instruction like 'look right' without debating the motivations of such an action. The puppet 'actors' here are literal tools of the filmmaker, unable to argue with their director when he manipulates them for storytelling purposes.
This comes into play particularly effectively during a sex scene. The idea of puppets engaging in intercourse probably conjures up images of Team America or Bride of Chucky, but Anomalisa features arguably the most realistic depiction of a one night stand ever brought to the screen. Tell a human actor they have to perform a nude lovemaking scene and they're probably going to instantly hire a private trainer to get themselves into athletic shape. A puppet can be fashioned, as they are here, into the figure of the average middle-aged person, complete with double chins and spare tyres. As well as being highly realistic, it's a touching moment, both participants getting something they badly needed from what they know at the back of their minds is a fleeting experience. They may be a foot tall and made of rubber, but Anomalisa features two of the most human characters you'll see on screen this year.
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