“What this world needs,” I was just slurring drunkenly over the bar where I don’t go because I don’t drink, “What this world needs is more stop-motion animated penises.” Fortunately, we have Anomalisa, filling the gap (heh) left by Ray Harryhausen, Rankin-Bass, Henry Selick, Aardman, Laika and others. And it’s fitting that it should be filled by Duke Johnson, one of the brains behind the crude, funny “Frankenhole”.
And, I suppose, it’s fitting that we have, as the other half of this phallic-phulphilling-phantasie Charlie Kaufman, writer of Being John Malkovich, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and “The Dana Carvey Show”. I don’t like any of those things so I knew I wasn’t going to like this going in—The Boy haled me to the early showing—but I thought if I could just lower my expectations enough I wouldn’t hate it.
Nope. Although “hate” isn’t really the right word. For Malkovich and Spotless, it was a sort of Woody Allen thing for me: I see the technique, and am somewhat entertained by certain aspects of the premise, or some of the jokes, but I become increasingly uncomfortable with the worldview which looks, to me, like we’re looking into someone’s special suitcase of crazy. Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda?, or any of his writing, is like this, as is Melancholia.
It’s that point on the scale where you externalize your neuroses while pretending you’re looking objectively at the world. Like, Tim Burton’s got Daddy Issues—but he knows he’s got Daddy Issues, so even if he has to inject that into films inappropriately, he’s at least aware that that’s what he’s doing.
Anyway, I get that sort of feeling from Kaufman’s stuff. I note that after Michael Gondry started doing his own writing (Mood Indigo, Be Kind Rewind, The Science Of Sleep), a lot of the elements of whimsy and magical realism were still present, but not the creepy feeling.
Anyway, back to the penises. David Thewlis (I thought it was Pierce Brosnan) plays Michael Stone, a successful Customer Service Guru delivering a speech in Cincinnati on the merits of his philosophy (“productivity went up 90%” is a common refrain in this film, although customer service has scant to do with productivity). He’s obsessed with this broken relationship—a woman he abandoned in Cincinnati in 1995—and is apparently looking to rekindle something with his old flame, despite a new wife and young child back home in Los Angeles.
By sheer happenstances, he stumbles across a girl named Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh, though I thought maybe Tina Majorino) and falls madly in love with her. That’s where one of the penises comes in. We get to see awkward, graphic stop-motion sex between the two. Yay.
So, the twist here is that apart from Michael and Lisa, all of the voices in the movie are done by veteran character actor Tom Noonan. I don’t mean “Tom Noonan does an amazing array of voices to populate the rest of the cast,” I mean, literally everyone else in the movie has the same voice. Most, or all perhaps, have the same face as well.
Nobody notices this. Michael doesn’t even notice it per se. He knows there’s something about Lisa he likes, something anomalous about her. He loves her voice. She actually sings “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” (although it was originally going to be “My Heart Will Go On”) at his request, shy and battered though she is.
So, there’s your hook. Seems like the sort of thing I might enjoy but, no. Besides the incipient feeling of creepiness that I had, I started (despite myself) wanting the movie to open up somehow into something different than what, by virtue of its Kaufmanity, it needed to be. (And, by the way, this is not meant as derogatory; if you like Kaufman’s work, this is going to be right-on-the-nose for you, as evinced by its amazingly positive reviews calling it “perfect” and “human” and its 91% critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes.)
Your options here are: 1) Michael’s crazy; 2) Michael’s is incipiently aware of a greater evil, like a Dark City thing. The latter leads to all sorts of interesting-from-an-action-movie-standpoint possibilities, though less chance at making a Dramatic Statement About Humanity. The former gives you two options: 1) He stays crazy; 2) He snaps out of it. Either can be done well, though the latter pulls you back into that dour, “Why? Why make this movie?” territory.
I won’t spoil it by telling you which way Kaufman goes. And, in fairness, you maybe couldn’t guess it from his previous stories, which a mix of endings.
But I didn’t escape my distaste for it. The Boy felt it was huge wasted potential, much like Son of Saul. And I couldn’t drag The Flower to see it: She loves the medium and objected to it being used for such depressing purposes.
Good score by Carter Burwell. Technically nice stop-motion and interesting camerawork. Nominated for an Oscar, and likely to win, I suspect, based on how screwed up the Academy is.