Charlie Kaufman has been stamped with the defining label of “weird” ever since his big screenwriting breakthrough with 1999’s Being John Malkovich, and that broad descriptor tends to obscure the searing human streak that runs through his work. Kaufman’s films undeniably skew in oddball directions, but the emotions his characters evince are painfully real. His films almost always center around outsiders grappling with blistering inner torment, trying desperately to make sense of the world they live in and their place within it. A Kaufman protagonist is always adrift, urgently seeking some measure of solace, meaning and understanding. Despite the avant-garde milieus in which they inhabit, they are often some of the most relatable characters in film.
Taking his place in the Kaufman ranks alongside the dejected puppeteer of Malkovich, the tortured screenwriter in Adaptation, the lovelorn romantic of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the broken playwright of Synecdoche, New York is Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a noted self-help author and the central character of Anomalisa. Michael has just touched down in Cincinnati for a speaking engagement to promote his new book for customer service representatives. When we first meet him, he is navigating his way through the tedious terrain of airports, cabs and hotels, each situation calculated for maximum irritation. A storm cloud looms over Michael’s head wherever he goes, a glum aura of soul-sickness and dissatisfaction emanating from him at all times. He’s married with a child, but appears to take no joy from that, nor from anything else. An ill-considered reconnection with an old lover ends disastrously when Michael mutates an already awkward situation into a desperate interrogation. He demands to know if the experience of being with him changed the woman for the worse.
The primary source of Michael’s ennui is his perception of everyone around him, male, female or child, as being utterly indistinguishable from one another. Everyone has the same face and speaks in the flat intonation of the great character actor Tom Noonan. The numbing sameness of his each and every encounter is wearing Michael down. He needs a spark to ignite, to burn down the walls of monotony in which he has become entombed. At a low point, he hears a voice from the hallway outside of his suite that, miraculously, does not sound like Cain from RoboCop 2, and it instantly enchants him. Bursting outside, he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a deeply insecure woman who is actually in town with a friend specifically to see Michael’s speech. Lisa, who has a scar on her face that she constantly attempts to conceal with her hair and a body that she clearly takes little pride in, is ecstatic to make Michael’s acquaintance, but in Lisa, Michael is convinced he’s found the very thing he needs to complete himself, something capable of revitalizing his atrophied spirit.
Four paragraphs in, I should probably get around to mentioning that Anomalisa is a stop-motion animated film. Michael, Lisa and the horde of Noonans are all puppets, if often disturbingly lifelike ones. The film, a co-directing effort by Kaufman and Duke Johnson (who did similar work years back on Community’s stop-motion Christmas episode), uses the technique to fashion a world cut from Michael’s oppressive point of view. In some ways, it’s like the famous sequence in Being John Malkovich, where the titular actor visits his own mind and finds it filled to the brim with Malkovichs, writ large. While this could have easily rendered the film a gimmick in lesser hands, what’s startling about Anomalisa is how excruciatingly human its inhuman characters come across. Michael’s disconnection to the world and Lisa’s heartbreaking lack of self-worth are so real and deeply felt as to be unbearable. Their encounter and brief time together is so personal and teeming with exposed-nerve sensitivity that it almost feels uncomfortably intrusive to watch. This is especially true of a protracted sex scene that may be the most starkly honest depiction of intimacy I’ve ever seen in a film, and it’s between puppets.
The film’s wildly unique look makes it a joy to watch, even if it occasionally carries with it a haunting and unsettling visual charge. It’s a testament to the film’s success that you often forget that you aren’t watching flesh-and-blood actors. Thewlis puts across Michael’s discontent in every weary line reading, and it’s difficult to imagine a voice more perfect for the droning collective of the outside world than Noonan’s affectless tone. But Jennifer Jason Leigh is the true vocal star of Anomalisa. Her girlish enthusiasm mixed with her constant need to put herself down makes the character astonishingly endearing. You get why Michael would be drawn to her as an oasis from the mundane. Between this and The Hateful Eight (in which she plays a character who couldn’t possibly be more different from Lisa), she is blazing one hell of a comeback trail.
In the end, Anomalisa has a lot to say about narcissism and character flaws. The film seems for the longest time to be using the monotonous nature of the world around Michael as a commentary on the tedious homogeny of modern society, but ultimately what we learn is that Michael is the unwitting architect of his own misery. Everyone around him seems like a pod person because the demands he places upon them are not met to his satisfaction. It’s not them, it’s him, and he will never understand that and thus will never be happy. It’s that keen insight into human foibles that makes this one of the best, most creatively invigorated films of the year. Anomalisa might alienate some with its unconventionality, but you’d have to be as hollow as its characters not to connect to it at all.
Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Brandon Wolfe at @BrandonTheWolfe.