Wallace and Gromit Do Dallas
I think it is reasonably well-known now that at one point in the late 1970s Tom Baker was trying very hard to make a Doctor Who movie, to co-star Vincent Price, but struggled to get the funding (as Baker co-wrote the script himself, it is perhaps for the best that the thing never got produced). At one point, he jokingly suggested his adoring public should send him five pound notes so that he could pay for the film that way. The result was, of course, that Baker had to spend even more money posting all the fivers back, as this was not an approved method of film finance. These days, of course, this sort of thing is all the rage, we just call it Kickstarter, and there are indeed people financing their films by asking people to send them money. One of them – and the first one I have seen – is Anomalisa, directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson.
On paper, the plot of Anomalisa sounds deceptively straightforward for a Charlie Kaufman movie. David Thewlis plays Mike Stone, a customer service expert due to address a conference in Cincinatti. He is not a happy man, with all sorts of emotional issues weighing heavy on his mind, and an attempt to reconnect with an old flame concludes disastrously. Then he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a woman planning on attending his presentation the next day, and the two of them shuffle towards the sort of intimacy perhaps only found by strangers who have very little in common but their choice of hotel.
However, the first thing you notice about Anomalisa is that it is an animation, not a live-action movie: and not just CGI, either, but painstaking stop-frame animation using miniature puppets. Whatever else you think of this movie – and I can imagine a wide range of responses, to be perfectly honest – the level of technical skill and attention to detail on display is more than a little mind-boggling. The film-makers never seem to be taking the easy option, with anything up to a dozen puppets on screen at any given moment, all fully animated.
There is of course a sort of instant disjunct between the film's medium and its message, as two strangers having a brief encounter of dubious wisdom in a hotel suite is not exactly the stuff of your typical animated movie, and to begin with I thought that the film had hit upon a new way of making people think about the small details of life – things you wouldn't think twice about in a live-action movie do take on a whole new cast when you see them being done by puppets. I thought this was actually the point of the film, because the significance of its most important conceit – the fact that every other character apart from Mike and Lisa has the same face and voice (that of Tom Noonan) – took a while to sink in.
Before that, I just found myself slightly bemused by the spectacle of puppets going to the bathroom, ordering room service, smoking cigarettes, and so on: there's a sort of studied insignificance to a lot of Anomalisa. And then... well, I was put somewhat in mind of my trip to the bunraku in Japan – a traditional Japanese puppet show, rather distinguished by its high quotient of misery and ritual suicide amongst the puppets. You don't expect ritual suicide from puppets, but then neither do you really expect a fairly graphic depiction of oral sex, and yet this is where the film ends up going.
Some things in life do not make great spectator activities, I would argue, and this is one of them, whether it's being done by puppets or not. But opinions clearly differ on this topic, as Anomalisa won the (presumably much coveted) (wait for it) 'Best Depiction of Nudity, Sexuality, or Seduction' gong from the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Hmm. Charlie Kaufman's films are usually stuffed with odd moments but they don't normally feel quite as self-conscious as this one. You can almost feel the film-makers' sense of delight at doing something so bold and unexpected with this mode of film-making – but it's almost as if they're setting out to shock, which is never a very impressive ambition. Plus, I can't help thinking that if Nick Park set out to make a stop-motion blue movie it would probably have better gags than this one.
Well, as you can probably tell, this is a fairly weird film in many different ways, and it's not one that wears its weirdness lightly: it's clear virtually from the start that this is going to be a film of Significance and Substance. This is not a lightweight or disposable film: if anything it is a gravitic Anomalisa (I feel obliged to apologise for that much-more-than-typically contrived and obscure pun), and not especially easy going. A lot of the drama seemed to me to be a bit short on the old objective correlative, too: at one point we're clearly supposed to be delighted and moved by the burgeoning emotion and tenderness between the characters, but all that's happening is someone singing 'Girls just wanna have fun' a capella. For the contrast between the style and the substance of the film to really work, the drama has to be convincingly naturalistic, and it just isn't. (And in places it's hard to tell whether it's being intentionally odd or not: Lisa's friend tells her that Mike is 'gorgeous', which is somewhat odd as the nature of the puppet means he looks rather like a cross between Commander Data and Jacob Rees-Mogg.)
That said, other than a brief interlude of typically Kaufmanic institutional absurdity – a visit to a functionary whose office is so huge he's laid on a golf cart to ferry visitors between the door and his desk – this is a tightly focused story, even if the subject of that focus isn't immediately obvious. Things which look like just being odd stylistic conceits actually turn out to be rather important to the message of the film, which is something to do with how we interact with each other as human beings.
I don't think Anomalisa is quite as clever or profound as it thinks it is, and the film remains peppered with odd little moments and creative decisions which are ultimately rather obscure and often a bit baffling, but it's still one of the smartest films I've seen recently, made with obvious care and attention to detail, and the central metaphor carries considerable power and emotional truth. I can't honestly call this a great movie, but it's never less than interesting to watch.