Wednesday, January 13, 2016

A Reel Review: ANOMALISA

Writer and mythologist Joseph Campbell once wrote extensively about the most vital stage of the hero’s journey, called The Belly of the Whale. In this stage, the hero, or the main character, enters an area of the unknown, appears to have died, and emerges on the other side reborn and prepared for the next stage of the journey.  In his stop-motion puppet drama ANOMALISA, writer and director Charlie Kaufman takes a unique approach to that stage of the journey; an approach which will have cinema lovers talking for a long time.

Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), is a self-help writer who is bored with the mundane routine of his life, and seemingly has a condition where everyone around him looks and sounds alike. On a business trip, he meets Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), the first person he has met in years that doesn’t look and sound like everyone else.

Traditionally, there are several stages in the journey of a character before they get into the Belly. Kaufman’s first unique approach to ANOMALISA is to skip most of them and catch us up with the characters while they already in the area of the unknown. By the time Michael and Lisa meet at their hotel, life has already chewed them up, and the two are navigating the Belly and looking for a way out. It’s a love story coupled with a glimpse on what may be Michael’s mental illness, or just a statement on how mundane we can let our lives get.

Right away, the stage is set for Kaufman and his characters to explore each other, develop backstories, and look for that all-important way out of the void they are in. But not content to just let his film rest on two lost souls finding new meaning in life, Kaufman gets several layers working at once. ANOMALISA is loaded with metaphors; from the name of the hotel, the title of the film, right down to every line of dialogue…everything has a deeper meaning. The metaphors are not cheesy or overly-clever and work very well, making ANOMALISA a joy to take in.

The usage of stop-motion puppetry gives the film a life that is very unique. The art-form allows Michael’s condition of seeing and hearing everyone the same way more believable and the characters almost seem aware that they are puppets. The puppets and the environments they inhabit are the true stars of the show. The puppets breath, eat, drink liquids, pour drinks, smoke, urinate, fornicate with stunning realism, and several long-takes without cutting away shows an incredible amount of skill from Kaufman and his co-director Duke Johnson. The puppets are true characters as they are written (and brilliantly voiced) with very true-human features. The environments are brought to life with breathtaking detail; especially the interior of a taxi-cab, hotel rooms, bathrooms, and room service menus are amazingly created. Kaufman and Johnson are also not afraid to fill the frame with as many characters as possible. A busy airport and most especially a hotel bar…are worth several viewings just to watch what the many characters/puppets in the background are doing. If stop-motion puppetry is a dying art-form, ANOMALISA is one hell of a way to go out.

As much of a joy ANOMALISA is to take in, the ending may frustrate those who are used to, or looking for a solid resolution to their films. Michael doesn’t seem to have changed very much by the time he exits the Belly, and it’s a subject of discussion whether or not he actually exited. The ending feels like the film had chased its tail, as Michael seems to be in the same goddamn state as when he started. It’s clearly an important episode in one man’s life, and if he is now armed with enough tools to survive his next chapter is also debatable. This is a case of the journey being better than the destination, but it’s a journey well worth taking.


No comments:

Post a Comment

A few rules:
1. Personal attacks not tolerated.
2. Haters welcome, if you can justify it.
3. Swearing is goddamn OK.