Thursday, January 14, 2016

The misery of an alienated puppet

Charlie Kaufman's Anomalisa makes the ordinary seem odd.

In Anomalisa, directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson immerse us in an environment so insistently ordinary, it almost becomes banal.

Almost everything about Anomalisa has the feel of dreary mundanity: an airplane's interior, the back seat of a taxi cab, a hotel room that's indistinguishable from thousands of other hotel rooms, and a hotel bar that's depressingly generic.

Enter Michael, an expert in customer service who has traveled from Los Angeles to Cincinnati to give a talk about how those who communicate with customers via the phone can improve their work. As the author of How May I Help You Help Them -- a bible in the field of customer relations -- Michael seems well-qualified for the job.

It doesn't take long before we realize that Michael is a spiritually exhausted British transplant. Mired in a marriage that no longer sparks his interest, Michael has a young son he'd rather not talk to when he calls home. His wife ignores his objections, and puts the boy on the phone. Rather desperately, he calls the kid "slugger."

Oops. I forgot something important. Did I mention that Michael is a puppet and that everything in Anomalisa results from stop-action animation that Kaufman and Johnson filmed with scale models? Michael (and the rest of the puppet characters) look as if they're wearing masks; visible seams make it appear as if their faces are composed of replaceable modular part.

More than half of Kaufman's achievement involves making puppets into credible characters. Puppetry gives the movie -- derived from a play that Kaufman wrote -- a strangely insulated air, as if everything we're watching has been hermetically sealed inside a diorama.

Kaufman's characters feel real and unreal at the same time, a feeling that's reinforced when the movie veers off into one of Michael's dreams.

No one should be surprised that Kaufman, who wrote Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation and who directed Synecdoche, New York, includes touches that don't always add up, that he presents an explicit puppet sex scene (yes, it works) or that all the film's characters, aside from Michael (David Thewlis) and Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), are voiced by Tom Noonan.

There's a point to that, I suppose. For Michael, everyone speaks in the same voice; the world has become one lengthy smorgasbord of undifferentiated boredom.

After a disastrous meeting with a former girlfriend, Michael discovers Lisa. He considers Lisa an anomaly; she seems alive in a way that can't be squelched either by the hotel's airless monotony or the existential mush of Michael's life. He concocts an exotic name for her, Anomalisa, part anomaly and part Lisa. Ergo, the movie's title.

Lisa has a scarred face, and she hides the scar by drooping her hair over it. She badly needs an affirming experience, but she's not defenseless. She seems able to handle a sexual encounter with Michael, even if it doesn't go beyond a one-night stand. She'll take what she can get.

In Lisa's world of lowered expectations, Michael qualifies as a celebrity. She's flattered by Michael's attentions, particularly when he chooses her over her traveling companion, a woman who's equally eager to sleep with this customer-relations genius.

For his part, Michael says he's fascinated by Lisa's voice, the only one in the movie that doesn't sound like every other voice. At one point, Lisa sings a song for Michael, "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," and the moment hovers in a limbo between poignant and pathetic.

At other times, Michael seems ridiculously out-of-touch with reality. He stops at a shop that sells sex toys, a place recommended by a taxi driver who wrongly assumed that Michael was just another businessman looking for some on-the-road thrills.

Anomalisa serves up an odd mixture of the bland and the idiosyncratic, but what to make of it? Are we supposed to identify with Michael, abhor his selfishness or take him as a representative of some generalized male malaise?

I'm not sure, but Kaufman condemns Michael to the depressing existence of a man whose life is going nowhere and who seems to have succeeded only in spreading his misery.

Kaufman is a bona fide talent, but it's up to you to decide whether you want to become the company that Michael's misery loves.

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