Review: 'Anomalisa,' set in Cincinnati

Posted at 3:06 PM, Jan 05, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-05 21:14:53-05

Filmmaker Charlie Kaufman is only getting weirder with "Anomalisa," and that's saying something. This is, after all, the screenwriter who won overwhelming praise and respect for his "Being John Malkovich," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and "Adaptation" screenplays before taking the director's chair for "Synecdoche, New York."

In all those projects, Kaufman was tethered to reality by the rational demands of studios and box office ledgers. So even though Kaufman was free to explore the intricacies of neuroses by cloning an actor playing himself and creating a portal into his mind, dreaming up science fiction about bad memory elimination and making a film with twin writers played by Nicolas Cage, he had to ground the stories in a sense of purpose and rationality.

That's not so in "Anomalisa," which Kaufman launched thanks to Kickstarter backing. The animated film -- about a grumpy business traveler's experiences at a Cincinnati hotel filled with characters who are all voiced by and resemble Thewlis -- is free to wander down its own rabbit hole. The movie is animated and meant to resemble stop-motion clay/miniature films.

The movie starts to halfway make sense as an obtuse character study. You spend a lot of time with the main character, Michael Stone, as he plows through the mundanities of life on the road. He waits in lines, he takes a cab to the hotel and deals with dense staffers. 

Everyone he interacts with -- women included -- look a bit and talk exactly like him. The upshot, presumably, is that everyone he comes in contact with is a fragment of himself, and the prejudices and anxieties he feels are directed inward as much as they are outward.

That's all fine, but then comes what must be an excuse for the film's dramatic thrust. Without spoiling, one character voiced by someone else -- Jennifer Jason Leigh -- so there's that. What follows is absurd and disturbingly graphic.

Kaufman is out to... who knows what? Gross out the audience? Twist them up in a labyrinth of analytical second guesses brought up and contradicted by the absurdity on screen? 

Whatever the case, "Anomalisa" is fascinating for the way it dumbfounds, intrigues, teases and casts your expectations aside. But it takes dedication and probably more patience than necessary to stay with the go-nowhere story and not, as Tom should ave done, just give up and check out.