Opening night of the Philadelphia Film Festival has always been a showcase for exciting cinema. In previous years films like Black Swan, Birdman, and (500) Days of Summer served to kick off the festival, and each went on to critical and awards season acclaim. This year’s opener, the Charlie Kaufman-penned stop-motion dramedy, Anomalisa, is certainly poised for accolade as well, if the reaction of the opening night crowd is any indication.
Anomalisa tells the surprisingly adult story of a how-to author on a business trip to Cincinnati, the home of zoo-sized zoos. He’s a drinker and a family man with hints of a womanizer’s past. We follow his cozy, personal journey over the course of a single, boozy evening. It’s Kaufman’s most grounded work to date, but it is distinctly Kaufman all the same.
According to Kaufman, the script originated during a period of writer’s block he experienced while crafting his directorial debut, Synechdoche, New York. The intention was for Anomalisa to be a play — more specifically, a “sound play” — and while I’m not sure precisely what that means, the voice work in the film (all but two characters are voiced by a single actor) leads me to believe that it was an appropriately “Kaufman-esque” creation. Watching the story in its filmic state, it’s (mostly) easy to see how it could work onstage. Upon seeing a theatrical performance of Anomalisa, Dino Stamatopoulis (Community, Moral Orel, Mr. Show, and about a million other classic cult properties) approached Kaufman with the idea of turning the play into a film. Kaufman was resistant to a film adaptation at first, concerned that much of the impact would be lost, but the idea of animating it eventually won him over. This brought Kaufman together with co-director, Duke Johnson. I’m glad it did, because Johnson is a talented director, and his visual style works beautifully. Many aspects of the story are appropriately enhanced by the stop-motion medium, which allows the story to sneak some challenging, mature ideas past our guard, and in doing so a truly unique experience is forged.
The project was funded by a Kickstarter campaign which gave the artists the resources to extend the film to feature length and allowed Anomalisa to exist outside of the studio system. The resulting film is truly a marvel, both technical and creative. It is funny, melancholic, relatable, and like much of Kaufman’s previous work, oddly uplifting. It taps into humanity’s shared neuroses, and finds cause to explore and celebrate these emotional oddities which serve to unite us all yet make each of us unique. Despite the fact that the players on screen are clay models, the care that Johnson and Kaufman put into bringing these odd creatures to life serves only to make them, and the story, that much more human.
Anomalisa is a masterpiece, and it is unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.