REVIEW: Anomalisa

13 01 2016

AnomalisaI have often thought of writing a screenplay, taking a Woody Allen-like approach of stashing all the ideas away in case one of them seems relevant or worth pursuing later. Different germs of ideas reach different stages of development, and often when I consider putting fingers to keyboard, my mind drifts to a Charlie Kaufman script. I think about a “Being John Malkovich” or “Adaptation” and wonder why bother writing when it would doubtfully reach the tremendous heights he scales.

Kaufman’s scripts possess levels of depth that might as well be subterranean. His genius of self-awareness and reflexivity consistently put other writers to shame. So I was taken aback when his latest effort, the stop-motion animated “Anomalisa,” marked something radically different. It was simple.

Most of the film’s complexity comes from the manipulation of the 3D-printed puppets, not from Kaufman’s script. “Anomalisa,” which he co-directed with Duke Johnson, tells a fairly conventional story of one man’s isolation and how an affectionate connection can melt the layers of ice around the heart. When stated as a logline like that, the premise sounds rather like a familiarly dull British dramedy. But Kaufman has a unique angle on it, one better left for each viewer to discover. Don’t read about it before, if at all possible.

Kaufman gradually reveals the central conceit that makes the film special, and then unleashes a tidal wave of sincerity and emotional honesty from lonely business lecturer Michael Stone (voice of David Thewlis) and Lisa Hesselman (voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh), the woman whose voice penetrates his soul. The rapport they share feels so authentic, which causes some intentional cognitive dissonance as their bodies are not human.

But once Kaufman comes out in the open with the train of thought powering “Anomalisa,” fans of his work may wonder where the twist comes into play. For a subversive writer who nearly always delights in blowing up storytelling conventions, such a straightforward story with just one major revelation of authorial intent seems strange. Perhaps knowledge of his prior scripts even serves an impediment to fully experiencing “Anomalisa” as viewers would otherwise have no reason to doubt its earnestness and purity. The final product is truly sweet and fulfilling – though whether something this quaint really merited years of Kaufman’s attention is another subject altogether. B+3stars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 13, 2010)

13 08 2010

Much like Christopher Nolan, whose brains have been the recipient of much praise this summer, Charlie Kaufman knows how to write some intelligent movies.  His third film, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” was a wildly engaging mystery and won him an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.  I think one thing Kaufman has over Nolan is an ability to keep us spellbound while we are perplexed, not scratching our heads.

But before he was Academy Award winner Charlie Kaufman, he wrote a movie called “Adaptation,” which may just be the best movie about writing I’ve ever seen.  It’s been pushed down the calendar to run in the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” column all summer, but that doesn’t mean it is worse than any of the movies I’ve featured for the past three months.  This is easily the brainiest, most complex movie of the bunch.  And don’t think that it isn’t funny because it’s brainy; it’s brilliantly hilarious.

The movie, directed by Spike Jonze, tells the tale of Charlie Kaufman (played here by Nicolas Cage) as he struggles with writers block after “Being John Malkovich.”  His task is to adapt “The Orchid Thief,” a non-fictional book by Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) about orchid poachers in Florida.  There’s just always some element he can’t get quite right, and it causes him anguish so painful we can feel it on the other side of the screen.

Add into the mix an equally neurotic twin brother Donald (also played by Cage) who’s obsessed with writing a script for the next blockbuster.  He has moved into Charlie’s home to mooch off him while also constantly asking advice on how to improve his screenplay.  Charlie constantly belittles his brother, refusing to acknowledge that he could actually have any talent.  Yet after seeing a screenwriting guru (Brian Cox), Charlie discovers that he needs his brother’s help to finish “The Orchid Thief.”  What results is the wildly self-referential “Adaptation,” a feast for the writer in all of us.

All three marquee names received Academy Award nominations for their performances – and deservedly so.   Chris Cooper, the so-called orchid thief of Orlean’s book, is a powerful force as a conman with uncanny intelligence.  Meryl Streep lets loose like seldom before (save perhaps her baked moment in “It’s Complicated), and it’s such fun to watch her do something a little different.  Cage doesn’t play two characters so much as he masters them, making them similar yet distinct.  He makes all the idiosyncrasies of the characters read well and milks them for some good humor.  Cage is so good, in fact, that you’ll surely scratch your head wondering why he’s strayed so far from these roles.