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Puppet Philosophy: Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s Anomalisa (2015) – DVD review

July 5, 2016 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

Charlie Kaufman confirms himself the puppet-master of American indie by merging his sadcore whimsy with animation, to surprisingly emotional effect.

1 Anomalisa

(Duke Johnson / Charlie Kaufman, 2015)

Considering Charlie Kaufman was the guy who had people enter John Malkovich’s head, wiped Jim Carrey’s memories and had Philip Seymour Hoffman create a city-sized theatre, it’s saying something that Anomalisa might be the weirdest film he’s ever been involved with.  By choosing puppetry for its delivery system, this plaintive chamber drama about a man having a mental breakdown strikes a tone that is disturbing, odd and melancholy.

On the surface, this is a simple story and most filmmakers would make it an indie two-hander; you can almost see it as a darker take on Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy.  But Kaufman has never taken the easy route and always sought unusual collaborators.  Just as earlier scripts were galvanised by the sensibilities of Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry, so working with animator Duke Johnson as co-director has given daring nuance to Anomalisa.

It’s a perfect fusion of form and content – the study of a man going through life’s motions who is himself a puppet, surrounded by Identikit creations.  It takes a while to realise that everybody he meets looks the same, and all voiced by the sinister calm of Tom Noonan (who had a similar role as existential Döppelganger in Synecdoche, New York).  Then there’s the aesthetic, with character faces that are composed of multiple, barely adjoined components – which occasionally fall off to reveal the workings beneath – and a vivid verisimilitude of set design that brings fresh meaning to the uncanny valley given how it clashes with the ‘actors’.

The more banal the action – and this is practically a documentary about staying in a hotel – the more disconcerting the effect, so the film achieves its emotional kick when Michael (David Thewlis) meets Lisa, who looks different and brings music to Michael’s ear with the spiky voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh.  It’s a cadence that cuts through the sinister calm of Noonan’s social gestalt and the dry, sceptical Mancunian vowels of Thewlis.

The film has Kaufman hallmarks, from the brittle deadpan of conversations with a taxi driver to a surreal visit to a sex shop, but this continues where Synecdoche, New York left off in trying to redefine the human condition by approaching it at an oblique angle.  The formal rigour of the animation focusses Kaufman like never before, and Michael’s fumbled grasp for connection in a plastic world is funny, strange and moving – everything that life is meant to be, but which took puppets to express.

Anomalisa is released on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday 11th July.


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