Monday, 8 February 2016

Anomalisa (2016) - Movie Review

While I have talked at length before about the nebulous concept of 'Oscar bait', and how this time of year just before the Oscars is usually the big dumping ground for its ilk around here, I fear I may have misrepresented it just a touch. I have usually attributed that term to what most people consider to be prestige pictures: Period pieces usually dealing with the important social issue of the day; bonus points if it’s set during World War II and/or involves Nazis.

Well, only recently by my own admission, I have realised that there is another type of Oscar bait out there: The over-conceptualised, over-cooked 'thought experiments' that are meant to be challenging but, more times than not, usually end up getting slapped with the 'pretentious' label whether it’s warranted or not. It’s the kind of space that arthouse hacks like Malick occupy. Yeah, I more than acknowledge that I may be in the minority on this, but I will not submit when it comes to how much the Academy unconditionally loves that guy and work that feels even remotely like his. Not to say that the hyper-intellectual type of Oscar bait is inherently bad; after all, Academy favourite Charlie Kaufman well and truly fills that gap and he is easily one of the most fascinating, if not always coherent, cinematic minds still working today. Yeah, time to actually put on that film snob hat for once; would be a shame if I didn’t wear it even once.

The plot: To Michael (David Thewlis), everyone in the world has not only the same face but also the same voice (Tom Noonan). While in Connecticut on business, he comes across Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a girl who stands out in just about every way possible. Finding joy for the first time in a long time, he and Lisa start to hit it off.

This might be the most ordinary-looking film Kaufman has ever been involved in. It doesn’t carry any of the working man’s escapism of his work with Spike Jonze, the pinch of French spice of his work with Michel Gondry, or even the frenetic and classy sheen of Clooney’s Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind. I mean, when talking about Kaufman, everyone having the same face barely reaches the ballpark in terms of how surreal he can get. Not only that, the story itself is a lot more bare bones than he usually ends up writing. This is the guy who loves working with multi-layered stories, often with rather chaotic results like with Adaptation; here, it is basically a love story that takes place over a two-day period when you get right down to it. The most abstract the film gets is in a single dream sequence that, with how weirdly it fits alongside the rest of the production, just didn’t end up feeling right when all is said and done. I’d even go so far as to say that this film, more so than his others, feels like he is borrowing from himself for ideas. Working with puppets? Being John Malkovich. Everyone having the exact same face and voice? Ditto. An older man with poor self-esteem suddenly falls for a unique girl, and yet is still unhappy? Adaptation and Synecdoche, New York, the two films that are probably the most auto-biographical of his entire filmography. The man is actively trying to limit himself with this production.

However, him going for something a bit more simple might be the entire point of it. I mean, his last film Synecdoche was so completely bonkers that it left most critics on the fence about it. Hell, after watching it, I’m still not entirely sure if I think it’s good or bad myself. Here, by extreme contrast, everything is made out to be deceptively normal. The stop-motion, while verging on the Uncanny Valley and making everyone look like they’re wearing glasses when they clearly aren’t, still gives a very definite feeling of reality. The set design is very mundane and, for the most part, the film itself takes place on a single hotel floor consisting of the hallway and two or three rooms at most. But, that only serves as a means to draw the audience in further to what is actually happening in the scenes. Tom Noonan, who seriously needs to get more work after this, manages to imbue every person he voices with just enough distinction to break up whatever monotony could possibly take place. And yet, we still get the feeling that we, just like Michael, are coming across the exact same person over and over again. Kind of fitting that Michael would be a self-help expert in customer service as, after dealing with customers day-in day-out for God knows how long, I imagine that everyone would start to sound the same.

More so than his love for messing with peoples’ heads, Kaufman could be best described as a true romantic at heart. He always seems to be at his best when dealing with what makes us tick and connect with one another, this being no exception. By stripping away everything else that could potentially distract from the film’s core, it takes the time to show just how much this romantic connection means to both Michael and Lisa. After each scene where Michael has to deal with Everyone Else, seeing him actually able to spend time on his own is remarkably refreshing. That need for a certain kind of isolation even comes through with how he interacts with Everyone Else; whether they are amorous, angry or just plain annoying, all of them seem to want to help Michael out in some way. Unfortunately, as is the case when you are in that mindset of utter confusion and disillusion of your surroundings, it doesn’t do any good.

Then in walks Lisa, and it is kind of shocking how good her chemistry is with David Thewlis. Like, seriously, making an on-screen relationship looks this…. pure, for lack of a better term, shouldn’t be this rare. They’re awkward together in that way that so many filmmakers try to mimic but only a few of them actually manage without them just being grating in how awkward they are. The slow pace, with all the time in the world devoted to them connecting with each other, does lead to some hokey moments thanks to a couple of Lisa’s platitudes but it never feels forced. If anything, it is genuinely touching to be able to see two people make that kind of intimate connection, especially with how well Thewlis and Leigh play off of each other. It’s a bit of a cliché to describe attraction to someone else being due to “there’s something special about them”, but we easily forget that that is just how it feels when you start to fall. Even with my initial worries concerning the prospect of sex, considering the anatomically correct puppets as well as the still-lingering memories of Team America: World Police, their coupling might make for one of the more beautiful moments I’ll see all year in film.

All in all, this film is literally all about finding a special someone and how some people just can’t allow themselves to be happy with that someone. Honestly, there’s a lot to admire about that, both in concept and in execution. I may not absolutely love Kaufman’s entire body of work as much as my peers, but when the man gets it right, it is incredible to behold. I may have my hang-ups about how this doesn't feel like Kaufman at his Kaufman-ist, but then again, this film works so damn well because of its simplicity.

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