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Animation Pairs With Soul-Crushing Isolation In 'Anomalisa'


This is FRESH AIR. The new film, "Anomalisa" uses stop motion animation to tell the story of a despairing middle-aged man and the young woman whose voice somehow penetrates his emotional fog. The script is by Charlie Kaufman, who co-directed the movie with animator Duke Johnson. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Charlie Kaufman has a genius for creating characters, mostly male, who sink further and further into the isolation chambers that are their minds. He illuminates those inner lives in his and Michel Gondry's masterpiece, "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind," as well as "Being John Malkovich." But for 100 ccs of pure Kaufman misery, you need to leave the realm of real actors and real settings for the surreal, artificial world of animation. Working with Duke Johnson, Kaufman has made a stop motion animated quasi-love story called "Anomalisa." And it's amazing, the most vivid portrait of solipsism this side of Kafka or any alienated artist; pick your favorite. I also found it creepy in ways its makers didn't intend and, in the end, unsatisfying. First, the ingenious premise - David Thewlis is the voice of Michael Stone, a middle-aged Brit who flies from his home in LA to Cincinnati, where he's slated to lecture service employees on the importance of talking to customers as if they're individuals, friends. The irony - a mighty one - is that Michael can't hear individual voices. Gradually, it hits you that all the other characters - men, women, even Michael's little son - speak in the same flat male voice belonging to the character Tom Noonan. Noonan isn't monotonic. He'll go up or down a semitone. But he has a peculiar mixture of mechanical and fake intimate that feels invasive. The stop motion animation is thrillingly expressive. Its subtle lack of fluidity makes Michael seem detached from his body, like the shell of a machine. Throughout "Anomalisa," we hear the sad, mechanical hum of a sad, mechanical universe embodied by the hotel where he's staying, the Fregoli, with its endless, dim corridors, the name invoking the Fregoli delusion, a rare syndrome where the sufferer believes everyone else is the same person in disguise. Then, suddenly, a new voice cuts through Michael's fog. It belongs to a conference attendee named Lisa, who's shy, reflexively self-deprecating and has a scar on her face. She's used to men ignoring her in favor of her attractive friend, Emily. But Michael fixes on her. Lisa's voice makes her an anomaly in his world, so he calls her Anomalisa. And her voice is magical. It belongs to Jennifer Jason Leigh, who puts her tremulous soul into every utterance. Alone in Michael's hotel room, Lisa is taken aback by his requested to kiss her scar.


JENNIFER JASON LEIGH: (As Lisa Hesselman) I just don't understand why you would want to kiss me there.

DAVID THEWLIS: (As Michael Stone) Because - because I like you.

LEIGH: (As Lisa Hesselman) Why? I mean, I'm not smart like Emily. And I'm ugly. You're a really smart guy. You should like Emily. I don't even understand a lot of the words in your book. I sat there with a dictionary. I try to learn, but I'm never going to be smart. And I'm ugly.

THEWLIS: (As Michael Stone) I find it enormously charming that you read any book with a dictionary next to you.

EDELSTEIN: Maybe you've heard about "Anomalisa's" very explicit stop motion sex scene, which makes your jaw drop, the characters' awkwardness and shyness transmuted in a feat of alchemy into a blessed communion. The suspense in the movie is in whether this sublime union can be sustained or if Lisa will lose her individual voice too. Michael represents a psychological extreme. But I still have a feeling that Kaufman regards the inability to hear the voices of others as more universal than it is. On some level, he's rationalizing lack of empathy. His Michael reminds me of how Tim Burton created the alter ego Edward Scissorhands to account for why Burton hurt people. He couldn't help it. He was born with scissors instead of hands. "Anomalisa" comes to feel self-centered in a sour, stunted way. The women are scolds or, in the case of Lisa, a simpleminded saint who seems like a male projection. Once the surprise of its wit and cinematic poetry wears off, you might be left with a nagging, yuck. Too concentrated a dose of Charlie Kaufman can be soul-curdling.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.


GROSS: If you want to catch up on FRESH AIR interview you missed, like our interviews with Todd Haynes and Phyllis Nagy, the director and screenwriter of the film "Carol," and Adam McKay, the director of "The Big Short," check out our podcast, where you'll find those and many other FRESH AIR interviews. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.