Film Review | Anomalisa (2015)

anomalisa film review charlie kaufman duke johnson tom noonan david thewlis jennifer jason leigh

I think you’re extraordinary. I don’t know why yet. It’s just obvious to me that you are.

This is something of a difficult movie to review, I think; in some senses, it’s a difficult one to watch. And I don’t (just) mean how awkward it feels to see stopmotion sex.

Charlie Kaufman has something of a reputation of being, to put it bluntly, a genius. This is the first film of his that I’ve ever watched, so my expectations were high; particularly so, given that the praise for this movie was just through the roof. I mean, take a look at the soundbites on the film’s poster – it isn’t just “perfect”, it’s “a rare sliver of transcendence”. It’s a “rare and haunting marvel” that, apparently, changed someone’s life. So, you know, that’s an astonishingly high bar to set.

Particularly I was drawn to the line that says “the most human film of the year”; not least because that was the only tagline I was aware of before I saw the movie, but there’s something about that which is just so… enticing, to me. I’m quite interested in drama (obviously) and I want to get into writing myself someday, so there’s something about “the most human film of the year” which sounds to me to be a ridiculously high piece of praise to level at something.

Watching the film, though? Hmm. I’m struggling to properly put a pin in what I actually thought of it.

It did feel quite real, right from the off, beginning with the banalities of plane rides and hotels. (It’s possible this resonated with me moreso because I was watching the movie on a plane, having recently left a hotel.) I think in some ways this sequence was made more effective because it was done in stopmotion; it’s the juxtaposition between the very “true” feeling dialogue and the obvious-yet-uncanny-valley-esque puppets that really highlights the more human side of this movie, I think. It draws it into much sharper focus, and I think the film benefits from this throughout; Anomalisa is tied quite closely to its stopmotion format, really availing of the medium in such a way that it wouldn’t work otherwise.

The stopmotion, incidentally, is fantastic. I have some experience with that medium myself, having made a few shorts over the years – but we’re talking weeks’ worth of work, to produce fairly simplistic videos of a minute and a half tops. Anomalisa is so advanced as to be nearly incomparable to what I did, though, and it’s frankly a work of art in itself. A stunning accomplishment, really, which would have taken a hell of a lot of effort; it paid off, in any case, because Anomalisa came out looking absolutely gorgeous.

I just don’t know that Anomalisa was actually as smart as it thought it was, or as smart as it wanted to be.

Anomalisa is about loneliness, to some extent; David Thewlis’ character, Matthew Stone, clearly feels quite isolated and spends the runtime of the movie desperately searching for some meaningful human connection. When he does find it, it’s so fleeting as to barely last at all. In a lot of ways, the depiction of loneliness here is quite well done – the dialogue is fantastic, the feeling permeates the movie, and there’s an aspect of it that seems quite true throughout. Stone repeats with Lisa what he did with the other woman; the irony is that she isn’t an “anomaly Lisa”, she’s just the latest in a long string of women he does that with. He’s sad and lonely and a little pathetic, and he can’t connect with people, because he gets so caught up with the romantic ideals and doesn’t consider the person behind the idealised fiction version. It’s a well-presented story, and in many regards it’s quite clever.

It’s not that clever, though. Because Anomalisa doesn’t really say anything about loneliness, and I don’t feel it presents anything particularly new or all that interesting. The high concept, essentially, is “let’s tell a story about a lonely middle-aged man who has an affair… except it’s stop motion!” and then that’s just sort of the extent of it. There’s a rather out of place, yet wholly predictable, dream sequence; it adds little, feeling largely superfluous, and you can sort of guess what’s going to happen in it from the first time you see the stop motion models. Towards the end of the movie, we’ve even got Stone saying “sometimes there is no meaning, and at times that’s a meaning in and of itself”; this feels rather like a cop-out, to be honest, as if the movie itself is rejecting the idea it needs to have some level of substance. It’s taken the simplest representation of loneliness you can have, and presented it in an interesting way – that’s not enough to make the heart of the movie feel anything other than quite superficial.

I’m quite frustrated, really, that I feel this way. Primarily because I actually did, generally speaking, enjoy most of it; it was reasonably clever, and entertaining enough, despite feeling terribly lacking in a few key areas. More than that, though, I want to understand why everyone else loves it so much, and what they took away from it that I didn’t. While I’m not exactly disinclined to go against the critical consensus, I do feel like “yeah it’s just not that great” isn’t really a strong enough argument in the face of such significant praise. There was a distinct feeling that I’d missed something about the movie; I did some more reading, and I did pick up on some more nuanced ambiguities before. The Japanese sex doll, for example, wasn’t quite as gratuitous as I thought and did open up some questions as to whether or not Stone’s night with Lisa was hallucinatory; I was also able to clarify a few points regarding the voice work and the impact of it.

Ultimately, though, none of what I’ve read actually made me feel any the wiser. Anomalisa feels like a movie that needs a rewatch to fully appreciate it, but there was little about it that made me think it deserved an immediate rewatch; I suspect I’d only be watching it to keep searching for some deeper meaning that I’m just not going to find. If you’ve got any clever comments on it, or you can link me to a great essay about the movie, I would love to hear from you; I get the sense that I’m going to be trying to make Anomalisa into something it’s not for quite some time.

I’m going to eschew a rating for this movie, in part because I still don’t feel that I “get” it, but also… well, sometimes there is no rating, and at times that’s a rating in and of itself.

(See? Such a cop-out.)

Note from Alex of 2018: I’m inclined to tell you to disregard most of the above, though I’ve not actually rewatched Anomalisa since writing this. It’s going to be near the top of my list, though, because I still think I’ve missed something.

Related:

I’ll add this bit in later.

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It’s December 10th! Ranking the Community Christmas Specials

community christmas specials oh christmas troy abed comparative religion abed's uncontrollable christmas stop motion intro to knots

So, Community. It’s not a program I’ve ever really spoken about on this blog before, which is in fact a crying shame: I love Community. I watched the whole series (bar the sixth season finale) over my long summer holiday this year – it’s the only show I’ve ever binge watched like that, actually. It’s very close to my heart, in any case; I really connected with it.

The thing is though, watching it during the summer, I didn’t really get the full seasonal experience of the Community Christmas Specials. So I figured I’d rewatch each of the episodes, and make a special blog post for the occasion.

community its december 10th shirley yvette nicole brown christmas special comparative religion

After all, it’s the right day for it!

So, let’s get onto the ranking! There were only four Community Christmas specials, all of which were in the first four seasons, so there’s only four to rank.

4). Intro to Knots (Season 4)

Community christmas special Intro to Knots malcolm mcdowell andy bobrow tristram shapeero

Admittedly, this one isn’t amazing. That’s true of most of season 4 of Community, it’s got to be said; the ‘gas leak year’, where creator Dan Harmon wasn’t running the show, always felt weirdly off brand. It’s a problem exacerbated by reduced involvement from characters such as Pierce, and the mismanagement of other characters like Chang (the “changnesia” arc was always really very strange), as well as the unwelcome appearance of the ‘darkest timeline’ at the end of the episode.

Perhaps most damning of all, this episode simply isn’t very Christmassy – an extra shame, given that it ultimately proved to be the last Christmas episode that Community ever did. It’s understandable, I suppose, once stop-motion and musicals had been covered, but regardless, it feels like something of a shame. It’s far from the end of the world, because there is an entertaining plot here, that does, in fact, work pretty well; the Professor’s manipulative actions are grounds for a lot of good jokes, and the eventual twist is set up rather cleverly. It’s just that, as a Christmas episode, it’s difficult to consider this episode a resounding success.

3). Comparative Religion (Season 1)

Community Christmas Special Comparative Religions december 10th dan harmon snow fight

There’s something rather fantastic about the first season of Community, which I count as amongst my favourite seasons of the program. I think part of it is the charm of the early days; the characters don’t quite know each other yet, the show is still settling into its groove, things are a little more “normal” in terms of the style, and so on and so forth. You can see that to an extent here – we’re still starting to get to know all the characters, and this is where we learn most of their religions. Pierce’s religion is legitimately hilarious, and the exchange between characters and discussion of religion works really well. (Also, another charming thing from the early days: the Dean’s insistence on avoiding discrimination by being as nondescript as possible.)

This is a brilliant episode, albeit perhaps not the most Christmassy – Christmas is, for the most part, a matter of setting here, something that informs the story, rather than being essential to it. The story of Jeff confronting the school bully could easily have been presented at another time of the year – but, actually, it works better by virtue of the fact that the episode is set at Christmas. It’s just more fun. The ending is particularly well suited to Christmas, actually; it juxtaposes the traditional Christmassy moral of people coming together with what actually happens – a great big punch up – to great comedic effect.

2). Regional Holiday Music (Season 3)

Community christmas special Regional Holiday Music greendale 7 flat pyjamas

I kinda love musicals, to be honest. Particularly musical episodes of shows that aren’t typically in such a format – Once More With Feeling is a brilliant Buffy episode, and I am still waiting for musical episodes of The Flash and Doctor Who. So, absolutely, it was really fun to see a musical episode of Community. It was always going to be difficult for them to follow Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas, in terms of presentation and style, but Regional Holiday Music does a stand up job regardless. It’s a lot of fun, and it retains the usual humour that Community does so well at.

Of course, being Community, there are elements of parody to the whole thing – biting sarcasm directed towards Glee (I’ve never seen it – is it really that bad?), lambasting the infantilization of women, and, of course, the entire Baby Boomer Santa song. More than that, though, is the comment on the grimdark nature of certain stories, and the fact that Christmas should, ultimately, remain a time of togetherness and positivity. Which is a nice message, methinks.

1). Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas (Season 2)

Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas community christmas special abed nadir claymation stopmotion duke johnson nbc dan harmon

This is the quintessential Christmas episode of Community; there is surely no doubt as to whether or not this would be the top of the list. Its most obvious strength is its central conceit – the stop motion animation, which ultimately proves to give the entire episode a genuinely charming and undoubtedly Christmassy tone. I love the fact that Community does episodes like this – bizarre and wacky and off the wall, breaking the conventions of the genre, and really pushing their format as far as possible, whilst still maintaining a hilarious script.

What’s brilliant about this episode, though, is that it has real emotional depth to it, with some intelligent and poignant ruminations about the meaning of Christmas. I actually really like the conclusion that’s reached – “The true meaning of Christmas is the idea that it can have meaning”. That, in and of itself, is a really poignant statement, and I think it conveys a brilliant understanding of Christmas. It’s really wonderful.

“Christmas is the crazy notion that the longest, coldest, darkest nights of the year can be the warmest and brightest.”

Merry Christmas, everyone. (Even if it is still just December 10th!)

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