Sunday, January 24, 2016


ANOMALISA             B+          
USA  (90 m)  2015  ‘Scope  d:  Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
—John Milton from Paradise Lost, 1667

A sad and even mournful film about conformism, alienation, and the lack of individuality, leading to a suffocatingly isolated view illustrating the anguish and heartache of human existence, given an even more improbable look when the film is expressed completely through animation and identical looking stop-motion puppets, where a similar metaphorical theme of seeing the world through the eyes of puppets originated in Kaufman’s outlandish screenplay for BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (1999).  Perhaps even more infuriating, outside of two lead characters, Michael Stone voiced by David Thewlis, who is in every single shot except the last, and Lisa, voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh, all the rest of the voices in the film, male and female, are performed by a single actor, Tom Noonan, suggesting not only does everyone else look alike, but they sound alike as well, as if he’s locked in a self-imposed purgatory (like being inside the head of John Malkovich) where all other voices and faces are indistinguishable.  Additionally, Noonan sings a hauntingly melancholic song that plays over the end credits, “None of Them Are You,” ANOMALISA 2016 MOVIE SOUNDTRACK (05. None of ... YouTube (4:06).  Adapted from an original hour-long “radio play” written by Kaufman under the pseudonym of Francis Fregoli that was performed before an audience only twice in Los Angeles in September, 2005, the same year the movie is set, the film script is nearly identical to the theatrical version, even to the use of the same three actors, expanded an additional half-hour with choreographed visuals, seemingly simplicity itself, yet remaining dense and surprisingly concise.  While not overtly revealed, the film introduces the audience to a rare psychological disorder known as Fregoli delusion, the belief that different people are in fact a single person who continually changes appearance.  While Buñuel had wicked fun with the idea of a continually shape-shifting Satan (played by Silvia Pinal!) following a beleaguered saint in Simon of the Desert (Simón del Desierto) (1965), literally hounding him into Hell, this condition suggests an inability to look beyond the detached limitations of one’s own loneliness and perpetual self-loathing, a projection of one’s own internal unhappiness, continually feeling disconnected and disassociated from others around you, where you are in effect stuck inside your own head, which is an extreme variation on Sartre’s existential No Exit.     

Opening to a black screen and the continuous sound of random voices and conversations, Michael Stone is a lonely, middle-aged man from Los Angeles on an overnight business trip to a nondescript city of Cincinnati, a customer service guru, father, and author who has written a successful self-help book, How May I Help You Help Them?  While he plans to give a motivational speech the next morning to a hotel convention of customer service workers, he has mixed feelings about the drabness of his own life, which seems defined by a monotony of sameness, as everyone he encounters looks and sounds exactly the same, with minor discrepancies.  The name of the hotel he stays at is called The Fregoli Hotel, a subtle suggestion of sorts, perceived as an oasis of emptiness, as he immediately hits the ice-machine and mini-bar, pouring himself a drink while switching on the TV, where in a moment of brilliance, an old black and white movie is playing, the screwball comedy MY MAN GODFREY (1936), weirdly populated by puppets instead of people, where the audience gets a whiff of what the director has in mind.  Not wishing to be alone, Michael summons the courage to call an old flame, still carrying a furious letter of rejection from years past, and decides to meet Bella at the hotel bar.  Played with the voice of a man, where the look of the puppets may as well be androgynous, it’s not even clear that she’s a woman, where the idea of a secret gay affair is actually much more intriguing, but Bella remains in a hurt and vulnerable state, even after all these years, and is offended once she realizes Michael’s intentions are to have sex, walking out indignantly, leaving Michael in even more of a depressive swoon.  Going for a walk to a nearby toy store, hoping to pick up something for his young son, he’s a bit surprised that it’s an adult toy store, becoming fascinated by the unique beauty of an armless and partially broken Japanese sex doll that has to be one of the strangest and most mysterious inclusions in this film, as Michael is more curiously attracted to the doll, which may be his only friend in the world, than even his wife and son who he calls at home, where he appears stuck in a loveless relationship with a complete disconnection to his young son. 

In a moment of conflicting ambiguity, where he may or may not have had an experience with the sex doll (where you may not trust anything that follows, for that matter), Michael showers afterwards, but rushes out of his room when he hears the sound of a woman’s voice, knocking on random doors until he discovers the source, a young, insecure woman named Lisa, where he’s literally mesmerized by the unique sound of her voice.  If truth be told, Jennifer Jason Leigh has a terrific sounding voice, which along with her blunt honesty is one of her strongest attributes, but here she plays an awkward but rather ordinary woman named Lisa with a pleasantly sunny disposition, in stark contrast with Michael.  She and her friend Emily are customer service reps for an Akron baked goods company and have driven for hours across the state just to hear him speak at the convention, where they are intimately familiar with his book.  After inviting them for drinks, where he’s viewed as something of a celebrity, Michael invites Lisa back to his room, much to her surprise, claiming men are usually more interested in Emily.  But there is something especially vulnerable and self-deprecating about Lisa, as she openly acknowledges she’s not pretty, or the least bit smart or special, so she’s caught by surprise that Michael finds her “extraordinary.”  When asked why, he can only utter, “I don’t know yet.  It’s just obvious to me that you are.”  Still infatuated by the sound of her voice, he encourages her to sing something, so she softly sings Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” ANOMALISA 2016 MOVIE SOUNDTRACK (08 ... - YouTube (4:02) in both English and Italian, which leads to the centerpiece of the film, an awkwardly shy and tender scene of lovemaking.  The naturalness of this scene is easily the most ambitious aspect of the film, where the use of inanimate objects to project the swirling feelings of love, which is perhaps the most human of all experiences, is quite astonishing for the rush of emotions generated onscreen, reminiscent of Claire Denis’s overtly sensuous film about a one-night stand, FRIDAY NIGHT (Vendredi Soir) (2002).  As the lone voice standing apart from the others, Michael considers her something of an anomaly, stringing together the film title as a play on words, both falling madly in love with each other afterwards, where she’s perceived as a “Goddess in Heaven,” or an answer to his prayers.  A nightmarish dream sequence sends a chill in the air, however, so by the time he gives his speech, Michael’s internal world is at war with itself, meandering into unintelligible asides, losing all focus, resulting in an embarrassing public spectacle where his brain appears to be spinning out of control.  The final scenes feel abrupt and couldn’t be more tragic and heartbreaking, leading to Tom Noonan’s mournful song over the end credits, “None of Them Are You,” ANOMALISA 2016 MOVIE SOUNDTRACK (05. None of ... YouTube (4:06), leaving the audience with a stark glimpse of a hidden side of ourselves that we rarely see.

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