To begin with, I thought I might really take to Anomalisa, the Oscar nominated stop-motion animation feature from writer/directors Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman. The opening, as author Michael Stone lands in Cincinnati for an overnight stay in order to give a speech at a conference on his book about customer service, brilliantly depicts and satirises the miseries of work related travel. A grim catalogue of chatty fellow passengers, obnoxious cab drivers, hotel manufactured courtesy, key cards that don’t work and so on are laid out in a way I found all too relatable. Like Michael, I often put on headphones to drown out the outside world in such situations.
However, Michael isn’t just miserable due to being an introvert on a work trip. He is also a selfish narcissist having a mid-life crisis of sorts (as Kaufman’s characters invariably do). His indifference to his wife and son, combined with deep loneliness prompts an awkward and immediately aborted reunion with an old flame based in Cincinnati. This in turn leads to a peculiar moment where he meets a young girl called Lisa, who read his book and has travelled to hear him speak. The two form an immediate connection, but is this love at last? Or is Michael simply manipulating the naïve Lisa, feeding his ego?
This seemingly mundane premise is made intriguing by the animation itself – stop motion whereby the joins that piece the faces together are deliberately showing. This allows an immediately compelling visual underscore to the idea in the film that the world is barely together, that people fall apart easily, that (in Michael’s eyes) everyone, except Lisa, is essentially the same. This latter point is important, as whilst David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh voice Michael and Lisa respectively (very well, incidentally), every other character – male or female – is played by Tom Noonan, and they all have the same facial features (as seen through Michael’s eyes).
However, despite these strengths, one cannot ultimately escape the feeling that the film thinks it is a lot smarter than it actually is. For all its surrealism and cleverness (especially in one dream sequence that directly recalls Kaufman’s Being John Malkovitch), Anomalisa has very little to add to what has already been seen countless times in films about middle aged men having a breakdown, or films whereby the protagonist has an existential crisis and ponders the apparent meaningless of life, only to (possibly) find hope in the form of a much younger love interest. It is also worth adding warnings here about strong sexual content, nudity and bad language, for those who appreciate them.
Quite honestly I am surprised at the level of acclaim that has accompanied the film. Despite fine animation and a vein of dark, surreal humour, Anomalisa feels like much ado about nothing, ending rather abruptly with a whimper rather than a bang. Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps it will have appeal beyond Kaufman completists, but for me it strives too hard to stare ruthlessly into the abyss of the human condition, at the expense of a satisfying story.