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"ANOMALISA"
(2015) (voices of David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Stop-Motion Animated Drama: An author looks to spice up his life while traveling in a city where he's to give a presentation the following day.
PLOT:
Michael Stone (voice of DAVID THEWLIS) is something of an expert on customer service, and his book on that subject has made him a star in that industry. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Donna (voice of TOM NOONAN), and their young son, Henry (voice of TOM NOONAN), and has just arrived in Cincinnati to give a speech about his area of expertise. Yet, as he tries rehearsing his presentation, he can't seem to get his mind off someone from the past who lives there. And that would be Bella (voice of TOM NOONAN), a former girlfriend who wasn't happy with the way they split. Hoping to make amends and perhaps looking to spice up his life, he calls her up after years of no contact. Their meeting for drinks at the hotel bar doesn't go well, however, thus leaving him both unbalanced and seemingly unhinged.

Things look up when he mistakenly knocks on the hotel door of two of his next-day attendees, best friends and co-workers Lisa (voice of JENNIFER JASON LEIGH) and Emily (voice of TOM NOONAN). He's immediately entranced by Lisa as her voice rings out as completely unique to him. Having low self-esteem, she initially doesn't believe his attraction to her is true, but she eventually ends up in bed with him. Having done so, however, he soon starts to see her just like everyone else, a perception that threatens their budding romance.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
How you view or experience any number of things, including movies, often depends on what baggage you bring along with you at the time. If you're mad about something beforehand, you could likely have a negative view of someone you meet immediately afterwards.

On the other hand, if you're really nervous about something that's coming up, you'll probably be distracted and thus not fully take in the experience. And if you're in a new romance, it's possible that whatever you go through together will end up imprinted on your relationship as being positive and delightful.

Of course, some films are so forceful or powerful that none of the above applies. You might have had the funniest morning of your life, but that would be tempered or altogether eliminated by watching something like "Schindler's List."

But for films that operate in the land of nebulousness, and are open to any number of interpretations regarding what they're about and are supposed to mean, one's short-term and long-term view of life can greatly influence their reaction.

Such is the case with "Anomalisa," the latest surreal film from writer/director Charlie Kaufman who co-directs here with Duke Johnson. Named for one of the main characters, Lisa, (and a pivotal one at that) as well as the word "anomaly" (something that deviates from what is standard, normal, or expected), the pic will mesmerize some, ultimately bore others, and likely leave the rest, just like yours truly now more than a month after seeing it, still trying to figure it out.

At first, the anomaly part really doesn't seem to apply, outside of the fact that all of the characters here are stop motion animation puppets, and that everyone but the main character and the aforementioned Lisa look quite similar to each other (in terms of facial characteristics) and even sound the same (thanks to the vocal work by Tom Noonan).

It's the tale of a businessman (David Thewlis voicing a motivational author who specializes in customer service) who arrives in Cincinnati for a convention where he's to address those working in his field of expertise. Like many a business traveler, he finds himself looking for some stimulation in his business hotel and first tries reconnecting with a former flame who lives nearby.

When that backfires and leads nowhere, he happens to meet Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) who immediately casts her spell on him. But that's not from her beauty, body, personality or demeanor (all of which, she believes in her self-deprecating and low self esteem ways are mediocre at best). Instead, it's because to him she doesn't look or sound like everyone else in his life, and that simple deviation nabs him hook, line and sinker.

The two end up having a one-night stand and he thinks he's found true love and is going to leave his wife. But then Lisa starts to transition into looking and sounding like the rest. What this means is open entirely to interpretation and the aforementioned personal luggage one brings along.

It could mean that like many people, he suffers from the grass is always greener syndrome and once he gets to that new pasture, he realizes it's not any different from what he just left. Or it could signify that, when it's all boiled down, people are really just the same and differences are only superficial. The symbolic possibilities are endless, and while that obviously means it's a great film for spawning post viewing discussions, the question remains about whether it's a great film in general.

There's no denying that, like any other movie filmed using the stop motion animation technique (where parts of the character figures are barely moved, filmed and then so on to create the illusion of movement and thus life), it's a technical marvel and an obvious labor of love. The work is so good that you soon forget you're watching puppets, although some related graphic nudity as well as a hard-R rated sex scene will bring you back to reality. Otherwise, and even when the hinges on the characters' mouths move in what's sometimes a gaping fashion (thus inducing yet another discussion of what that ultimately means), you'll likely be mesmerized by the characters and their realistic presentation.

That said, there's not much to the story outside the abundant symbolism and underlying themes. The author tries to reconnect with his ex, then has a one-night stand, and then returns home. That's about it, and while I can't say I was ever bored, I did have a "is that all there is?" reaction at the end, along with a "I'm still thinking about it" statement when asked if I liked it or not. Due to the positives, I'll say I did, and perhaps on a second or third viewing, I might have that assessment reinforced. Or maybe completely reversed. It all depends on the baggage I'll bring into the theater with me. Equally mesmerizing and confounding, "Anomalisa" rates as a 6 out of 10.




Reviewed November 12, 2015 / Posted January 8, 2016


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