Movie Review: “Anomalisa”

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Well, it’s no “Inside/Out.”

The first animated offering from the brain of Charlie Kaufman (“Being John Malkovich”) started life as a play about the mechanical banality of modern existence, and perhaps the emptiness of narcissism. So naturally the fellow who imposed “Synedoche, New York” on us thought “puppets” (stop motion models) when transferring it to the big screen.

Alternately daring and dull, inventively animated, intimate and yet impersonal, it’s challenging enough to turn off most. There were mass walk-outs of the screening I attended. There’s depth, but it’s trapped beneath a suspiciously shallow surface.

David Thewlis gives voice to Michael Stone, a customer service guru who is famous within his little world. People recognize him in the lobby of the hotel he checks into in Cincinnati, where he’s to give a speech.

Everyone he encounters — from his wife and child (reached by phone) and the dim bulb chatterbox cabbie to the hotel clerk — who never loses eye contact, or blinks, as Michael checks in — has the same voice, provided by Tom Noonan. Because…that’s the way the world sounds to the self-involved?

There’s a letter he keeps re-reading, a “How COULD you?” tirade from a woman whose heart he broke years before. She has Noonan’s voice as well. Calling her since he’s in Cincinnati, where she lives, is a mistake.

And stumbling, feverish, into two call-center “fans” and plying them with drinks in the bar seems like a heel move, too. But one of them, younger with a streak of pink in her hair, sounds like a woman — at least in his head.

Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) chatters away, at Michael’s insistence. She’s sure she’s giving away her unworldliness to Michael. “Shut up, Lisa,” she reminds herself.  And him.

His every word seems profound.  To Lisa.

“Sometimes, there’s no lesson. That’s a lesson in itself.”

But over the course of an intimate evening, he connects with her, or at least puts moves on that she responds to. She is new to his broken soul act, an anomaly to his experience — “Anomalisa.” She sings and he immerses himself in her “miraculous voice.” Leigh gives Lisa pathos, lets us fear for how this all will turn out. Thewlis plays Michael as guilt-free, which undercuts the “romance” of it all. We’re meant to feel the angst he’s feeling. I never got past contempt.

And in any event, we start to see how letters like the one he brought with him on this trip get written.

Nothing happens in the first 30 minutes of “Anomalisa.” And nothing that comes afterward screams “This MUST be animated.” Has the world been waiting for a fresh way to animate sex — puppet porn? Outside of Japan, I mean?

Judging from the earliest reviews and the best animated film Oscar nomination, it has.

But I’d suggest it’s a film of obvious jokes — the punchline-in-waiting misunderstanding of what Michael means when he asks the cabbie if there are “toy stores” near his hotel — and awkwardness. The most promising sequence is Kafkaesque — so literally that you expect the hotel manager who summons Michael to his typist-filled office to be named “Franz.”

“Anomalisa” still has the capacity to touch you, provoke an accounting of empty lives and the white noise sameness of everyone we meet. But the folks walking out on this one, confused and put off, earn a pass from “You just don’t get it” charges. Kaufman’s been plunging deeper and deeper into his own head, or another handy body cavity, for years.

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MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity and language

Cast: The voices of David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tom Noonan.
Credits: Directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, based a play by Charlie Kaufman. A Paramount release.

Running time: 1:30

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