My well-worn Fruit Of The Loom crew socks always are knocked off when I think about the number of really creative people sharing space with me and the rest of the less-gifted on Planet Earth. And I think about this fairly often. I mean, worthy musicians and visual artists and novelists and comedians and you-name-it form an eye-popping total. Part of that is due to the insane volume of humans (over seven billion) inhabiting our orb. Still, body count aside, I’m pretty certain that the percentage of seriously creative humans today is higher than ever before in our species’ long and unsettling history.
That inspiring notion was trotting through my mind last weekend as I watched a most unusual movie, Anomalisa. As the final credits rolled I wasn’t certain exactly how much I liked the movie, but I sure as shootin’ was immensely impressed by its meticulous construction and idiosyncratic pilings, by its very existence to tell you the truth. Who the heck except those with non-standard orientations would decide to have the story of a depressed and lonely man represented on screen by stop-motion puppets instead of by humans? And be able to pull it off? Well, it happened, and Anomalisa, quirky and profound, was the result. And yet, the credits still rolling, I remembered the words of my excellent friend Dave last year in the lobby of the movie theater where we had just watched Clouds Of Sils Maria. “This one’s not for everyone,” he wisely had observed. I would say the same for Anomalisa.
Last year I bravely composed a review of Clouds Of Sils Maria, fully admitting that my teensy level of brain power had penetrated only a fraction of Clouds’ wonders (read it by clicking here). I found Anomalisa far more comprehensible than Clouds. Here’s the set-up: Michael Stone, a celebrated self-help book author, flies from his home in Los Angeles to Cincinnati, where he is to address, with words of wisdom, a convention of customer service workers gathered there from around the USA. His job is to instruct the tribe how to become more productive, how to relate better with customers. Michael has a problem though. A really big problem. He, a guru to many, is desperately in need of help, and he knows it. Life has lost its meaning to him. Everyone, everything seems homogenized and bland, boringly repetitive and predictable. He is irritable and teetering on the edge. Things have gotten so bad in Michaelville, he can’t differentiate anyone’s voice. Male or female, all voices sound the same to him. And yet he plods on, a drink and/or a smoke never far from his hands.
In his hotel, the day before his scheduled speech, Michael meets Lisa, a sweet youngish lady with no special talents. Lisa, a customer service rep, has driven to Cincinnati to attend the convention. Michael immediately takes to her. Why? Miraculously, her voice is the one and only in the world that is distinctive to him. And thus he considers her to be unique, an anomaly. And possibly his salvation. He pet-names her Anomalisa: Anomaly + Lisa = Anomalisa.
If you end up seeing the movie you’ll thank me for what I’m about to do now, for here is where, for the most part, I will stop giving details about the storyline. But don’t hang up yet. There are a few things that I can’t hold back. Let’s start with sex. Hey, it might be limited to one scene, but man, it’s raunchy. Pretty weird seeing puppets going at it with gusto. Maybe kind of creepy too, though in an intriguing sort of way. And definitely not something you come across every day.
And I dare not overlook the larger implications of Michael Stone’s circumstances, or my credentials as a pseudocritic might be withdrawn. Charlie Kaufman, the writer of a few out-there movies (Being John Malkovich; Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind) authored Anomalisa. Not that I’ve discussed Anomalisa with him (C’mon, Charlie, take my calls. I’m harmless), but I think that Charlie is commenting on what he sees as the modern world’s dehumanizing nature, the result of which is a fair number of people who don’t know themselves and don’t know what to do about that. Michael Stone, for example.
When doing my spotty research into Anomalisa I found an article that went into the movie’s genesis. For me, Anomalisa’s puppetry by far is its most head-turning aspect. Turns out, though, that Charlie Kaufman, for all his unusual takes on life, didn’t birth the puppet idea. Kaufman originally had written Anomalisa for the stage, where it ran in Los Angeles in a very limited engagement about 10 years ago. Dino Stamatopoulos, a writer/producer/actor and a pal of Charlie’s, saw the play and concluded that it would translate handsomely to the silver screen. With puppets. I’m guessing that Dino often doesn’t drive on the proper side of the road. Kaufman, at first resistant, eventually agreed to the splendid suggestion. Charlie ended up directing the flick with stop-motion animation virtuoso Duke Johnson.
Anomalisa was a labor of love. The puppets, the sets, were beautifully fashioned and filmed. As far as I can gather, nearly everything we see on screen was hand-made. Whew! I can’t imagine how many hours of puppet-molding and fabric-stitching and carpentry went into Anomalisa. Gazillions. Not to mention the time needed to move the puppets’ bodies incrementally and film each new position to present the illusion of movement. The work paid off. The puppets had me believing in their human personas, and the sets are realistic, subdued and glowing in an Edward Hopper-like way.
How much, then, did I enjoy Anomalisa? I saw the movie in Philadelphia with my wife Sandy and our wonderful friends Cindy and Gene. They all might have liked Anomalisa a little more than I did. I thought it was good but not great, primarily because the plot dragged here and there. On purpose, for sure, because life’s ordinariness is part, but hardly all, of Anomalisa’s stew. Has any other movie presented mundanity with such unnerving precision, though? I doubt it.
Aomalisa is odd, a curiosity with a strong human face. And it’s just up some folks’ alleys. Cindy used the word compelling to describe Anomalisa, and I don’t disagree. To those willing to take a plunge I say “go for it.”
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(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)