Review: Anomalisa


DIR: Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson • WRI: Charlie Kaufman •PRO: Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnsen, Dino Stamatopulous, Rosa Tran • DOP: Joe Passareli  • ED: Garret Elkins • DES: John Joyce, Huy Vu • MUS: Carter Burwell • CAST: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan

The brilliant Charlie Kaufman makes a very welcome return to our screens, co-directing his own script with Duke Johnson, in this haunting and humorous stop-motion treatise on human relationships. It’s been eight years since Kaufman’s last outing – the magisterial Synecdoche, New York – and it really is sad that an artist of his calibre has struggled for funding for various projects since. Kaufman had to turn to Kickstarter to get Anomalisa made. The film’s subsequent critical raves and popularity at various festivals should at least ensure Kaufman does not have as much trouble raising finance for his next project.

The film follows Michael Stone (Thewlis), an alienated customer services author, who flies into Cincinnati the night before he is to give a talk at a conference. In Michael’s world, and the world of the film, everyone speaks with the same voice (Tom Noonan), be it a boorish taxi driver driving him to his hotel, his ex-girlfriend, his son, his wife. Even the music that Michael listens to is infused with that same droning delivery. After an ill-advised meeting with his ex-girlfriend, Michael hears from his hotel room the sound of a different intonation. It is that of Lisa (Jason Leigh), a fan of Michael’s book, who is also residing in the hotel, a few doors up from him. Subsequent to this delightful discovery Michael invites Lisa and her friend for a drink and then later, Lisa to his bedroom. And so begins a fragile, mismatched and finite night of passion and romance between the two.

There are some shades of Lost in Translation about the alienated hotel room setting but Kaufman’s film is a more slippery, ambiguous affair. It lacks the scale of Kaufman’s Synecdoche, being a more low-key and simpler affair. However, Kaufman doing simple still results in richness unmatched by most other contemporary filmmakers. With Anomalisa, he has essentially given us a film in which two lonely people spend a night together in a hotel but has injected with strange beauty and also genuine sadness and pessimism. The film is often hilarious in its cynical depiction of human nature, but there’s also something almost disturbing and eerie about the world of the film. Lisa stands out to the viewer in the same way she stands out to Michael’s foggy, depressed mind.

The engagement with Michael’s subjectivity is achieved largely through the extraordinarily detailed animation. The technical majesty on show is probably best exemplified by an extraordinary sex scene between Michael and Lisa. On paper the description of a puppeted sex scene might conjure up memories of Team America: World Police. But here the scene is not played for laughs. It is explicit, sustained, and tender. It also feels decidedly real.

Another key component of the film is the terrific voice work from the three actors. Thewlis really captures the burrowed melancholy of a man so cut-off from those around him. It is to my mind, the actor’s most memorable role since Mike Leigh’s Naked. Jennifer Jason Leigh also does exceptional work. Her rendering of Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun is another odd image and sound that proves difficult to forget on seeing the film. Noonan, voicing every character other than those two, also excels in what could have been a thankless role.

A film of hidden depths and subtle riches. Essential viewing.

David Prendeville

89 minutes

15A (See IFCO for details)

Anomalisa is released 11th March 2016

Anomalisa – Official Website




San Sebastian Film Festival: Masterclass with Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson


Séamas McSwiney reports from the recent Masterclass with Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson at the San Sebastian Film Festival, which ran 18 – 26 September.


A highlight for many at this year’s San Sebastian-Donostia film festival was the presence of screenwriting ace Charlie Kaufman, who notably wrote such idiosyncratic gems as Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. More recently, he’s forayed into direction and carried his originality a stage further. Synecdoche, New York, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, was his first directorial outing, which garnered more respect than acclaim. He then went on to write an experimental theatre piece called Anomalisa, now turned into feature film that, after its Venice and Telluride screenings last month, has thus far maintained a 100% critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Anomalisa is an odd, dark, dredging of the human soul. That it should do this with such probingly uncomfortable insight —and be made in stop-motion animation— is testimony to Kaufman and to animation specialist, Duke Johnson, who co-directed.

In the San Sebastian catalogue, Anomalisa is simply described in one sentence (in Basque, Spanish and English): “A man struggles with his inability to connect with others”. This belies the fact that our hero is a British inspirational speaker on in Cincinnati to give a talk to about his book to adoring fans.

Kaufman and Johnson were also in San Sebastian to give a masterclass to the International Film Student Meeting that takes place over four days every year at the festival. Happily, Kaufman’s shyness and penchant for self-deprecation did not get in the way of his excellent ability to communicate with others. Polite, insightful, frank and sincere, he recounted his career, from the desert years after film school, including the nagging desire to abandon it all, on to the lucky breaks writing for television, and answering questions from a rapt audience of film students from all over Europe and farther. He talks as good a show as he writes. He is inspirational.

He and Johnson also got into the nitty-gritty of producing Anomalisa, starting with a crowd-funding campaign before persuading private capital to invest, thus escaping the interference of studio and industry funding.

The 14th International Film Students Meeting ran over 4 days at the Tabakalera-International Centre for Contemporary Culture and of course it also included a film competition. A jury consisting of students from centres in Argentina, Belgium, Cuba, Germany, Israel, Mexico, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland, The Netherlands and United Kingdom; chaired by the Benedikt Erlingsson gave the first prize, the Panavision award to: Nueva Vida, by Kiro Russo from Universidad del Cine (Argentina).

Other prizes were awarded to student films from Cuba, Germany and the Netherlands, but the real prizes went to the diverse attendees who got to meet kindred spirits from around the world.

This year the International Film Students Meeting received a total of 193 applications, short films from 89 schools in 35 countries: Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Denmark, Ecuador, France, Georgia, Germany, Netherlands, Hungary, India, Iran, Israel, Lithuania, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Qatar, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, United Kingdom, Uruguay, USA and Venezuela. From which 12 were selected for screening and discussion.

No Irish films were selected, possibly because none applied.


Séamas McSwiney is an Irish writer-producer based in Paris


Synecdoche, New York


DIR/ WRI: Charlie Kaufman • PRO: Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman, Sidney Kimmel, Anthony Bregman • DOP: Frederick Elmes • ED: Robert Frazen • DES: Mark Friedberg • CAST: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Hope Davis

Just as in his previous logic-defying staples Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Charlie Kaufman once again bends the viewer’s perception of reality in his latest offering, Synecdoche, New York.

We follow the life of Caden Cotard (Seymour Hoffman), a successful but neurotic theatre-director whose pessimism and hypochondria are driving away his wife, Adele (Keener). We are brought, not always comfortably, along on his journey as he becomes increasingly obsessed with art, the meaning of life and the inevitability of death.

When he receives news that he has won the prestigious MacArthur grant following his latest theatre hit, Caden determines to create something significant and important; something profoundly truthful. The result is a philosophical crusade that sprawls across many years, seeking out and invading the life of every person that it can touch. Kaufman delicately layers the stories, ideas and desires of each character to the point where their lives blend together inseparably, making it is impossible to discriminate between what is real, what is fantasy and what is delusion.

Caden’s ‘masterpiece’ is contained in an enormous warehouse in downtown Schenectady: a living model city, built to scale and populated by an ever-expanding cast and crew, striving to mirror life in all its beauty and bleakness. We see the development of Caden’s changing relationships with Adele, Hazel and Claire, and in turn their changing relationships with everyone else, played out inside the reconstructed city within the warehouse. As the city grows, the borders of reality crumble: life on the inside and outside the warehouse imitate each the other in escalating circles until we begin to wonder if Caden, or anyone, could ever make sense of either.

Synecdoche, New York is leaps and bounds apart from the standard Hollywood flick, as is only to be expected from Kaufman. While some critics have blasted it as self-indulgent or pretentious, it remains a film with ambitions as large as those of its protagonist – which is really saying something. The casting is faultless, with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener as brilliant as ever, and memorable performances by Michelle Williams (Claire), Samantha Morton (Hazel) and Emily Watson (Tammy). This may not be the first choice for those seeking romantic escapism, but it is nonetheless witty, honest and arresting. The visuals are stunning and unnerving in equal measure, the dialogue balances sharp wit with surreally detached reflection; it is overwhelming, tender, funny and, at times, horribly sad.

Jennifer Wade
(See biog here)

Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)
Synecdoche, New York
is released on 15th May 2009

Synecdoche, New York – Official Website