[This is a re-post of my review from the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. Anomalisa opens today in limited release.]
Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut, 2007’s Synecdoche, New York, was so odd that it was difficult to get a handle on it, at least on a first viewing. Even in his screenplays, which include Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation., and Being John Malkovich, Kaufman created a bizarre reality that’s both distant and yet more immediate than our own. For his latest film, Anomalisa, he leaves live-action entirely and goes into stop-motion animation, and yet the raw, aching, vulnerable, flawed humanity he presents in all of his films is as present as ever. Co-directed with Duke Johnson, Anomalisa, is ingenious in its design and provides a thoughtful, melancholy meditation on loneliness and a longing for human connection. It’s a theme Kaufman has explored before, but it feels completely fresh and totally brilliant in this bittersweet tale of trying to find anyone special.
Michael Stone (David Thewlis) is the best-selling author of a book about customer service, and he has flown into Cincinnati to give a speech on the subject. However, everyone Michael sees has the same bland face, and they all speak with the same voice (Tom Noonan). Michael feels absolutely lost and cannot even connect with his wife and son, but while he’s at the hotel, he hears a voice unlike any other. It belongs to Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a physically scarred woman who has come to Cincinnati to hear Michael speak. Michael believes she’s the answer to all of his problems, but his problems may be beyond this anomaly.
Michael is a typical Kaufman character: lost, lonely, deeply flawed, and struggling to connect, and while it’s a bleak character, Anomalisa is consistently funny, although it’s very much in line with Kaufman’s specific sense of humor. One of Kaufman’s many talents is picking up on the minor indignities and inanities of life, and we can feel Michael’s irritation with ordering room service or dealing with shower temperature. In the hands of other filmmakers, these moments would pass unnoticed, but Kaufman and Johnson are able to get big laughs from forced conversations just as easily as they’re able to wring pathos from Michael’s longing to find a unique person.
The movie avoids falling into the trap of “poor, rich white guy” by finding the larger tragedy of success failing to bring happiness. Michael has done everything “right” in terms of a family and a career, but nothing can make him love his wife or even his son any more than a total stranger. There’s something broken inside of him, and he’s willing to do anything to try and fix it. It’s no wonder then that when he sees Lisa, who simply by virtue of having a different voice and face than everyone else, he believes she’s the one who will save him.
Kaufman shows how lost Michael is by richly painting Lisa as a heartbreaking character. Even though she’s just a stop-motion puppet, Lisa feels more real than most flesh-and-blood characters I’ve seen on screen this year. The way she tears herself down and the way she sees the world feels genuine, and it’s devastating to see a sweet, innocent woman also longing for a connection, but in a way that’s unique to her. Michael is using her, but the movie doesn’t treat her like an object.
The acute human emotions help ground the film’s surreal quality. The animation is gorgeous, and the directors put together some stunning shots that help further create a heightened reality. The stop-motion isn’t just a gimmick; in addition to helping to give everyone but Michael and Lisa the same face, it provides a unique aesthetic that can be played for comedy (it doesn’t hurt that the puppets are reminiscent of the ones from Team America) or to give the film a dreamlike quality.
Then there’s the genius of using one voice actor for everyone else, and Noonan does it perfectly. Rather than mask his voice, he gives it a bit of a monotone, but doesn’t leave out inflection or articulation. He has to voice a variety of characters, and make them both distinct and yet indiscriminate. It’s a masterful piece of voice work that’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard in an animated film, and gives Anomalisa yet another unique dimension.
At this point, Charlie Kaufman could almost be a sub-genre to himself, and Anomalisa is unmistakably his voice. However, it doesn’t feel like a retread or a fresh coat of paint on old ideas. His collaboration with Johnson, the stop-motion animation, and most importantly the heartbreaking characters and story make the themes feel new and immediate. Anomalisa is as effective and compelling as any of Kaufman’s movies. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait seven more years for his next film.