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Puppets' portrait of privilege and pathos

Tim Kroenert |  10 February 2016



Anomalisa (MA). Directors: Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman. Starring: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan. 90 minutes

As screenwriter for such comic oddities as Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, Kaufman delineated a particular type of over-educated, middle-class, white male character. His protagonists are artists whose alienation and self-loathing is at odds with their social privilege, and whose creative drive entails a winnowing for authenticity or immortality that leads them inexorably down the rabbit hole of their own navels: the search for meaning as the ultimate act of self-absorption.

This Kaufmanesque archetype (which is arguably, and at times blatantly, an avatar of Kaufman himself) was fully actualised in the character of Caden Cotard, the egomaniacal theatremaker played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in 2008's Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman's directorial debut. And he emerges again fully formed in the shape of Michael Stone, the celebrity self-help author adrift in a sea of menacing existential fog in Kaufman's long-awaited follow-up, Anomalisa.

The film spans a night and a day in a Cincinnati hotel, where Michael (voiced by Thewlis) is scheduled to speak at a conference. All is not well with Michael. If his palpable resignation isn't evidence enough of this, consider the fact that every human he meets has the same face, and the same voice (that of regular Kaufman collaborator Noonan); from the garrulous taxi driver who drives him from the airport to the hotel to the wife with whom he shares a few words over the phone.

During the course of the evening, Michael has what develops into an ugly and insulting encounter with a former flame; later he meets and drinks with a pair of women who have come to hear him speak. He is drawn to one of them in particular, Lisa, who, aside from Michael himself, is the only character in the film to be voiced by an actor other than Noonan (Leigh has that honour). Amid his existence of depressing sameness, Lisa is an anomaly (hence the film's title).

It is worth noting, if it is not already apparent from this description, that Anomalisa is a work of stop-motion animation; the characters portrayed by humanoid puppets whose open facial seams serve as a constant reminder of their artificiality. Kaufman's co-director Johnson is known for his work on more puerile 'adult' animations including Moral Orel and Mary Shelley's Frankenhole; together they tune the form into a story that is sensitive and deeply humane.

The film consists predominantly of several long, gently paced scenes, where the drama plays out in the dialogue and the finely nuanced characterisations of the puppets. Central to these is the nightlong encounter between Michael and Lisa, whose intimacies include what is surely the most genuinely touching puppet sex scene ever put to film. That the characters are so recognisably, vulnerably human is testament to the excellence of the writing, animation and voice performances.

There is an ominous undercurrent to all of this, implicit in the fact that Michael's attraction to Lisa is based on her being new and different, which are necessarily transient qualities. The extent to which the encounter exploits Lisa and is an outworking of a deeper impending crisis for Michael is unpacked during the film's surreal final act. Needless to say that for iterations of the Kaufmanesque archetype, fulfilment is not to be found in the indulgence of selfish impulses.


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.



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