One of the best pieces of casting so far in 2016 is undoubtedly David Thewlis’ ‘portrayal’ of Michael Stone; a disillusioned, mid-life crisis-afflicted self-help author and public speaker, in Charlie Kaufman’s wonderful stop motion animation, Anomalisa.
A voice over part it may well only be, and perhaps it helps to have seen much of Thewlis’ back catalogue of film and television work, but, without insinuating for a moment that Thewlis is actually in any way a morose, middle-aged misery, he really can turn his hand effortlessly to this sort of blunt, curmudgeonly, irritable character; the sort of person we’ve all encountered or perhaps even ‘been’ in our own lives at some point.
One shouldn’t get hung up however on the notion that this is some comic story, poking fun at an old misery guts. Instead, director Kaufman has painstakingly and with much love and attention to detail it should be said, pieced together a gentle tale of mid-life frustrations and the soul’s eternal search for meaning and contentment.
Sprinkled with subtle observational humour throughout, Anomalisa follows Michael, something of a minor celebrity within the self-help field, on a visit to Cincinnati – home of chocolate chilli and a very good zoo – he is repeatedly informed by those of good intentions. Here he will deliver one of his trademark speeches at a customer service conference.
It’s a whistle-stop stay, but Michael, currently a man of rather unhappy and confused nature, intends, against his better, married judgement, to contact an ex-flame whilst in town under the misapprehension that he can somehow re-kindle something special that they apparently once had well over a decade ago.
Needless to say, it’s a foolish plan, doomed to failure, but out of such ill-judged intentions, by chance, a slither of opportunity reveals itself.
Distress and desperation leads Michael to the door of fellow hotel guests, Lisa (the voice of Jennifer Jason-Leigh) and her friend, both of whom just so happen to be in town to attend Michael’s conference speech.
Lisa flicks a dormant switch in Michael’s head and heart, and for one fleeting moment and one ‘perfect’ night, life suddenly regains some purpose and meaning. But for how long? And is this really the change that he’s been craving or just a momentary illumination in an otherwise melancholic existence?
Anomalisa is not just a marvel of animation, it’s also a splendidly accurate portrayal of human interactions and foibles; quite an achievement when you consider that there’s not a single human being in it.
The question of course will be asked: Does Charlie Kaufman’s decision to approach the story using stop motion animation truly add anything to the project that using actors wouldn’t have done, or is it just an admittedly superbly realised gimmick?
It’s an interesting thought. I’m certainly no great fan of animation, but in many ways, it ensures that this simple story of loneliness and longing lives long in the memory and whether that is down to the novelty factor of Kaufman’s artistic approach or because it is simply so well executed, will be very much down to the individual in this instance.
One thing is certain though, Anomalisa is a genuinely touching, bitter-sweet tale which successfully conveys almost the entire gamut of human emotions through a painstakingly detailed animation process – which, buying into the animation concept or not, is remarkably impressive in itself.