One of the chief pleasures of attending the AFI Fest is seeing major productions with all-star casts alongside independent ones from up-and-coming filmmakers. In some cases, you get both in the same work, as is the case with Anomalisa, directed by Charlie Kaufman and AFI alum Duke Johnson. Using stop-motion puppetry, the film follows customer service guru and best-selling author David Stone, voiced by David Thewlis, through a dark night of the soul while on a 24-hour business trip away from his family.
In Cincinnati to give a lecture inspired by one of his books, the lonely Stone quickly seeks out female companionship, first from a jilted ex-girlfriend, then from a frumpy fan, Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), in town to hear him speak. Except for Lisa, everyone looks and sounds the same (all voiced by Tom Noonan), projections of Stone’s disenchantment with life.
The film continues Kaufman’s exploration of the existential confusion that accompanies the creative process and the anxiety that’s inevitably unleashed when it’s attended by honest self-examination. Like all of Kaufman’s protagonists, Stone is disappointed by the failure of his art to remedy his personal problems and provide the answers to life’s big questions.
While less byzantine in plot construction than Kaufman’s other work, Anomalisa exhibits his patented mix of tender melancholy and dark, absurdist comedy. The decision to use stop-motion puppetry to visualize the film’s bleak, banal settings provides the experimental shading Kaufman is known for, supplying just the right amount of visual estrangement to match Stone’s growing alienation from his fellow characters as the story progresses.
Minus one surreal sequence that briefly pushes the work into the realm of fantasy, the decision to ground the story in a scrupulously realistic setting allows Kaufman to create an almost hyper-realistic world, where minute details like the smallest movements of the characters’ hair and facial features register on an emotional and visual level in a way that would be nearly impossible to replicate in a live-action film.
The same attention to naturalism in the characters’ physical interactions and ways of expressing themselves—with their awkward pauses, stutters, tics, and other nervous behavior—similarly endow the film with the painful authenticity that always keeps Kaufman’s characters psychologically grounded amid even the most absurd scenarios.
Having reduced the scale of his on-screen realm, especially in comparison with the infinitely regressing worlds of Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman has created a more intimate film here, while maintaining the philosophical headiness and intellectual rigor of his previous work. By film’s end, though superficially reinforcing the conclusions of his earlier films, that the creation of intellectually honest art inevitably causes the artist to became alienated from his fellow humans, he hints that such art can at least bring hope and joy to those that encounter it, if ultimately not to the artist himself.
Like Johnson, Zachary Treitz makes his feature debut with Men Go to Battle, an anti-epic set during the American Civil War about the relationship between two inept, inarticulate brothers. While divorced from its usual contemporary settings, all of the hipster narcissism associated with mumblecore cinema is on full display here: the inane struggles and concerns of the story’s young, single protagonists; the attempt at authentic dialogue and speech patterns (which never convinces as being of its time and place); and the natural settings, the one area where the film’s low-budget, shaky camerawork, and lo-fi digital cinematography actually add to the work’s verisimilitude.
Of particular note in that regard is the central battle sequence, shot from the protagonist’s perspective, where the audience is only able to see what he sees, creating a sense of visual and emotional chaos that, for the one and only time in the film, fully immerses the viewer in this world of violent entropy. Otherwise, the work comes off as a lazy attempt to reconstruct the mores and social conditions of Civil War-era rural Kentucky.
The screenplay, by Treitz and Kate Lyn Sheil, fails to delineate the characters’ motivations and concerns with any depth, resulting in interactions that carry little emotional weight that fail to add up to anything noteworthy in terms of drama or insight by film’s end. No information is offered concerning the characters’ socioeconomic conditions or political leanings, so one is never sure if it’s the Confederates or the Union that they support.
The result is a haphazardly defined world that more often than not is full of meaningless sound and fury, signifying little other than the filmmakers’ desire to make a Civil War drama without doing the requisite research to create a convincing recreation of that world or a coherent story to set in it.
AFI Fest ran from November 5—12.