Through films like Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Synecdoche, New York, and Adaptation, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has forged a reputation for mind-rattling imagery, quirky characters, thought-provoking stories and tragicomedy meditations on what it means to be human. Or as the hero of his latest, the stop-motion animated Anomalisa, asks, “What is to ache? What is it to be alive?”
Kaufman explores the answers to these questions through an expansion on an idea first teased in a nightmarish Being John Malkovich sequence, where its titular star was confronted by a world where everyone shares the same face and voice, specifically his. Conversely, Anomalisa centers on the one man who is not like all the rest.
Author of a customer service advice-book, Michael Stone (David Thewlis) is overwhelmed with ennui while on a business trip. He sees everyone as the same, down to the same voice (Tom Noonan), the same face, the same tiresome demands on his patience. All the women who nag and disappoint him. All the taxi drivers, servers and bellhops who wait on him. The gift-demanding son he doesn’t understand. His hell is other people, who are an army of mundane conversation, vague hostilities, and uninspired interactions. Then he meets her, Lisa. His Anomalisa.
Lisa’s face is not like the rest. Hers is soft, expressive and scarred just off her right eye. Her voice is that of a humble and hesitant Jennifer Jason Leigh. A particularly poignant, awkward yet humorous moment (heretofore known as Kaufmanesque) comes when Lisa sings Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” in a timid voice with her eyes closed, turning even its rowdy chorus into a tender confession. Between this and The Hateful Eight, no one this year has shown more radical range than Leigh. While in one she is a wild, spitting madwoman, in Anomalisa her voiceover work is alternately dotted with anxieties, breathless with wonder, heavy with hope, and laced with pain. It’s a performance that like Scarlett Johansson in Her might make you wish the Academy Awards paid attention to voice work in their honorees.
Michael and Lisa’s is a brief, barbed and sometimes beautiful love story. You know from the start it’s doomed. After all, he’s married. She’s emotionally fragile and in utter awe of him, swooning over his insights on customer service. Lisa is not just an anomaly, but catnip to Michael and his need to feel important. But there’s a smugness and misanthropy to Kaufman’s works that has often kept me at arm’s length and does here.
In Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, I connected with the frustrations of his flustered and scruffy anti-heroes. But in Anomalisa—as with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—Kaufman wallows in exasperation of people, and I can’t relate to the intensity of his isolation. Michael spirals into paranoid fears and nightmares about a world determined to smother his creativity, his hope, his passion. His face twitches and glitches before falling off. Strangers proclaim their devotion while demanding he ditch the “only other person in the world.” These and other touches like Michael’s mistaken trip to a sex toy shop (complete with giant floppy dildo and Japanese sex robot) and shadowy basement office so big a golf cart is demanded to traverse it are curious and signaturely surreal Kaufman choices. But I can only appreciate this ride intellectually. Emotionally it leaves me numb. Like with Synecdoche, New York, I was more intrigued than moved.
From a technical view, the animation is extraordinary. Puppeteers expertly created physicality for the sprawling cast of characters that feels so natural—like Michael holding the bridge of his nose when he sniffles—that it’s eerie in its realism. But Kaufman and his co-director Duke Johnson don’t want you to forget the façade. They leave the eye-level seams (often erased in postproduction) raw and visible on the puppets’ faces, constantly challenging your brain to accept the movie on its own terms. Likewise, the uniform faces make from some splendidly surreal and even funny moments, from a re-enactment of an iconic My Man Godfrey clip where Noonan’s monotone voice makes the slapstick feel strange and sleepy, to when Michael’s old flame turns up at a restaurant and he’s unsure if it’s her. Of course he is. She looks like literally everyone else.
I don’t like this movie, but I do admire it.
Anomalisa is willfully rife with uncomfortable moments, be it the physical fumbling of a one-night stand or Lisa’s rants about her insecurities. Kaufman, with each tiny gesture, each repeating face, each banal line of dialogue about zoos and mojitos, is shaping a love letter to loneliness. In moments, it’s melancholic, magical and sometimes even moving. But overall, it reads to me like a message in a bottle meant for someone else.