ANOMALISA (2015, Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson)
Perhaps suffers from high expectations, as Kaufman’s other directorial effort (SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK) was my favorite film of 2008. That thing was a sprawling, assertive, ferocious work of artistry that I’ve been terrified to revisit just because of how emotionally wrecked I was at the end of it. And as his scripts for ADAPTATION and ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (still probably his best work to date) show, he is capable of full-on existential assaults. So why does ANOMALISA feel a little minor? It’s quiet, simple, and offers reduced and straight-forward versions of the themes he’s been playing with for years, albeit with brand-new visual ideas, thanks to his animator/co-director Johnson.
The puppet work here is impressive, as is everything else around it — the lighting, visual effects, sound design, and score all work in harmony to give Kaufman’s material the tone it requires. But the result is still something I feel like I’ve seen before from him — and others. The story is yet another in a long line of sad-sack middle-aged middle-class white guys going through a crisis (stale marriage, boring job, stifling environment, longing for true love), realizing that newness always leads to oldness, and the real problem lies within and there’s no escape from the hollow human condition — we are doomed to be lonely blah blah blah.
Given that this material is so well-worn, the only thing we have to go on is the creativity involved in the animation and voice work, and while it gets some mileage out of the gimmick of everyone having the same voice (Tom Noonan, perpetually creepy) until Thewlis meets Jennifer Jason Leigh, it still drags out its minor narrative with overlong scenes that wear out their welcome. For every terrific bit like the “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” serenade, there’s a bland dream sequence or an interminable sex scene that keeps reiterating the same character beats of awkwardness. To some extent, the length of these scenes is the point — a cab driver conversation that goes on too long, or the emptiness of being alone in a hotel room at night — but it still feels like it’s straining to get to feature length. By the end, as often as I chuckled or admired what I was looking at, I wasn’t challenged in any real way or left to think about anything I hadn’t already contemplated from prior, more vibrant works from Kaufman.