The style hallmarks of auteur Charlie Kaufman, writer and director of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Being John Malkovich” and “Synecdoche, New York,” are all over his latest film, “Anomalisa,” co-directed with Duke Johnson.
Self-conscious and ecentric, “Anomalisa” is a stop-motion animated film about aging self-help writer Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), whose monotonous life has rendered him numb and depersonalized.
To Stone, every voice is literally the same until he comes across Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a young woman staying at the same Cincinnati hotel where Stone is to attend his promotional lecture. The movie takes place over the course of a 24-hour span, following Stone through his attempts to socially and emotionally connect with others.
Released in US theaters on Dec. 30, 2015, “Anomalisa” had a fairly dismal performance at the box office, earning less than 12 percent of its production budget.
Though the movie had a much warmer reception from critics, the commercial failure of “Anomalisa” is a better evaluation of the film.
Despite the superficial Kaufman-isms, “Anomalisa” is too obsessed with its inherent novelty—a ponderous, thoughtful, mature film in stop-motion!—to have the same pulse of life as Kaufman’s best work.
In the first two acts of the movie, flat, lifeless visuals accompany scenes that drag on too long. The film offers its meandering pace as a form of realism, and intends to jarringly offset this realism with the movie’s animation.
Once it is clear that the figures on screen aren’t human, however, it simply becomes tedious.
The movie’s interminable feel is, to some degree, deliberate. The primary theme of “Anomalisa” is monotony, after all.
Perhaps the goal is to induce a boredom in the audience that makes them sympathetic to Stone’s condition, much like how the movie forces the viewer into his perspective through the voice acting. Both of these choices make the otherwise quite unlikable Stone a more palatable protagonist, but only by brushing over the harm he does to others. The film fails to be the nuanced, cautionary parable about unchecked individuality that it wants to be, simply because the focus is never off of Stone for more than a few seconds at a time.
At one point the film gestures toward the unpredictable, vivid cinema that Kaufman is so skilled at, but instead it opts for a perfunctory climax. “Sometimes there’s no lesson,” Stone says during a pivotal scene near the movie’s closing. “That’s a lesson in itself.” It’s a sly wink to the feeling of futility that bookends the film, but it doesn’t carry the weight it could have if there had been any suggestion that Stone might’ve learned a lesson over the film’s narrative. Instead, it’s predictable and redundant, a restatement of themes that the movie never stopped articulating in the first place.