Directed by Charlie Kauffman and Duke Johnson
Paramount, 90minutes, R (Language and graphic cartoon sex, really!)
It would unfair to call Anomalisa a bad film. Stronger terms are needed: animated atrocity, digital dreck, feculent film…. Or maybe we should use a line from The Goodbye Girl: "capital P, capital U, capital TRID."
I have adored past Charlie Kaufman efforts, even to the point of declaring his 2008 Synecdoche, New York a certified masterpiece, but Anomalisa is a one-trick pony whose singular subterfuge is stretched to 90 minutes. It feels much, much longer–as if you are plopped into a theater seat and told to stare into the sky until the sun supernovas. Here's the trick: Kauffman and 35-year-old-not-ready-for-prime-time co-director Duke Johnson use stop action technology on three live actors (David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan) and then animate them. The characters move in jerky, floppy, puppet-like ways, and their faces have scored parts like hinged puppets. That's because they are, in fact, puppets. Right away a problem emerges: Kauffman is paying homage to himself! Remember Being John Malkovich (1999)?
This is the first of numerous plagiarisms, none of which are a patch on the originals. The thin set up is that self-help customer service guru Michael Stone (Thewlis) flies to Cincinnati to give a conference keynote speech. Within five minutes we see his problem: he's incredibly lonely and perceives himself as the world's only unique being–the rest of the world literally looks like a male or androgynous female version of Tom Noonan and speaks in his voice. Add existential dread to Stone's list of worries, one compounded by a failure to rekindle a long-extinguished flame with former girlfriend Bella. Michael is a severely depressed individual, but neither he nor we are entirely sure what he is: a puppet in a cosmic game, an android in a universe of androids, insane…. Or, cliché of clichés, maybe it's all just a bad dream. Then he meets Lisa Hesselman (Leigh), a clumsy, half-bright, starry-eyed conference attendee with slight facial trauma. She's the only one other than Michael who looks and talks uniquely. After an evening of–and this is very hard to watch without being creeped out–rather graphic puppet sex, Michael wonders if maybe Lisa is his ticket out of whatever nightmare he's locked into.
Here's a partial list of sources from which Kauffman and Johnson either borrow or steal: Blade Runner, Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions, Ex Machina, Star Trek, I, Robot, Logorama, and nearly every other film Kauffman has ever made. Is Stone the only sentient being in the universe? Hello, Dwayne Hoover from Vonnegut. Is he an android who wants to feel something? Shake hands with Mr. Data. Is he afraid that he too is a 'droid? You know, like Deckard in Blade Runner. Has the world become so generic that nostrums and consumer goods are the most real thing left? Logorama dealt with that question in a tidy 16 minutes. To quote Vonnegut, so it goes…. The only thing original about this dud is the surface technology and a few reoccurring jokes about Cincinnati. It's too thin—visual interest wears off in about ten minutes and the humor isn't funny enough to sustain us through the remaining 80. Anomalisa is, in turns, sad without being affecting, affected without being sad, pathetic without being sympathetic, and occasionally funny in the service of nothing. As for its ideas, Kauffman and Johnson could have put everything important on a Post-It note.
This movie has won some awards at film festivals and is up for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars, but only one who isn't inoculated against buzz, puffery, and surfaces without depth could be impressed. I don't care how many awards this one gets—it's the turkey of the year. Don't get me started as on whether it's a biological or robotic turkey–Blade Runner covered that turf as well.