“What is it to be alive?” asks Michael Stone, a sad-sack motivational speaker struggling through an existential crisis, in writer Charlie Kaufman’s poignant and poetic mindblower Anomalisa, which is by turns hilarious and heartbreaking. Michael’s question is at the heart of this (deservingly R-rated) stop-motion-animated feature that probes life’s big questions in a deceptively simple story.
Anomalisa begins with a cacophony of voices as a plane flies through cloudy skies. The sounds all blend together, making it impossible to differentiate one voice from another. Seated on the plane is Stone, who is traveling to Cincinnati to speak to a group of conventioneers about customer service. He is something of a celebrity in the world of customer service, having written the best-selling book “How May I Help You Help Them?” (an ironic title given the fact that Stone can’t even help himself and has little interest in other people). As he talks with a seatmate, listens to a chatty cab driver, and encounters a desk clerk and bellhop at a hotel, it becomes apparent that all of the people he meets look and sound alike; they have the same nondescript face and speak with the same HAL-like voice (all belonging to Tom Noonan). The hotel Stone checks into is the Fergoli, an obvious reference to the Fregoli delusion, a disorder in which a person believes that different people are actually the same individual.
Stone (voiced brilliantly by David Thewlis) is pretty much a stone himself. He’s cold, uninterested in the lives of others, and seemingly incapable of feeling anything but numbness. “Everything’s boring,” he says. He dutifully calls his wife and son back in Los Angeles after he checks into his hotel room, but it’s clear that he has no affection for them. He rings up an old flame and invites her over for drinks at the hotel bar in the hope of an easy hookup, but their conversation quickly turns contentious. However, after Stone returns to his room he hears a sound in the hall that awakens him. It’s the voice of Lisa (a pitch-perfect Jennifer Jason Leigh), a shy woman from Akron who is attending the conference for which Stone is the keynote speaker. Not only is her voice different from everyone else’s, her face is different too. She’s no great beauty -- she has a scar near her right eye that she tries to keep covered with her dull, matted hair -- yet her sweet, girlish personality is infectious. She’s an anomaly and Stone can’t get enough of her. “Your voice is like magic,” he tells her. But, alas, magic is an illusion, a bitter truth that Stone soon learns.
If this all sounds like a downer, it isn’t. Screenwriter Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), who also co-directed with stop-motion wizard Duke Johnson, injects the story with a great deal of humor and is able to make the narcissistic Stone surprisingly relatable (even though he’s still insufferable at times). Stone’s main problem is that he can’t escape himself and is never able to fill the vacuum in his own heart; no matter what he tries, the novelty always wears off. He flails about, attempting to find meaning in an indifferent, godless universe, but he keeps coming up blank. What is it to be alive, indeed? Strangely enough, the medium of stop-motion animation proves to be the perfect vehicle to examine this all-too-human dilemma. The puppets are startlingly lifelike (there’s even a graphic sex scene that helped garner the movie its R rating), but the sameness of the figurines and the chilly environment they inhabit allow us to see the world as Stone views it: bland, gray, empty.
Stone asks Lisa to sing a song at one point, and she chooses Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” Momentary fun seems to be all Stone can hope for, even as his soul aches for more. “Look for what is special about each individual,” he later tells the conventioneers. “Focus on that.” Sadly, he is too self-absorbed to take his own advice. Anomalisa is what we would likely get if Woody Allen ventured into stop-motion animation. Michael Stone has a lot in common with Annie Hall’s Alvy Singer, who famously quipped: “I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.”
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- Released: 2015
- Rating: R
- Review: “What is it to be alive?” asks Michael Stone, a sad-sack motivational speaker struggling through an existential crisis, in writer Charlie Kaufman’s poignant and poetic mindblower Anomalisa, which is by turns hilarious and heartbreaking. Michael’s question… (more)