Consider the half-dozen or so screenplays Charlie Kaufman has written and there’s no disputing his boundless creativity, regardless of your taste for his eccentric, sometimes surreal, style. His stories may be about brain-erasing and body-swapping, but Kaufman has always put the desire for human connection – scratch that, the thirst for it – at the melancholic core of his work. This is more present than ever in Anomalisa, a crisp and moving story about a confused, sad soul told by way of handmade, stop-motion animation. It is Kaufman’s most mature film and also his greatest creative challenge.
With co-director Duke Johnson, Kaufman adapts his own radio play about a depressed motivational speaker who sees a light within his dim midlife crisis after meeting a shy, gentle younger woman. The man, named Michael Stone, is a bit of a dick when Anomalisa begins, but we can feel his life’s minutiae. He has just landed in Cincinnati to speak at a conference, and is suffering through every crappy detail of travel: the chatty cab driver, the hospitable desk clerk, the officious bellhop. Most of us can sympathize with, and laugh at, Michael’s day. But there’s an added element that’s tough to parse at first – every person Michael comes across has the same voice. The effect is both bizarre and effectively unsettling, as we’re left to determine whether this is meant to be our point-of-view or Michael’s.
In fact, all of Anomalisa is voiced by just three actors, the same performers from the original play: David Thewlis is Michael, Jennifer Jason Leigh is the girl, Lisa, and Tom Noonan is everybody else. Man, woman, kid, whomever Michael encounters, we hear Noonan’s voice comes from their mouths. Even a former flame sounds weird during a painful meetup at the hotel bar, during which the lonely Michael makes a pass at her anyway.
Obviously, the guy is stuck in a colorless, lifeless world, and the façade of animation only helps to magnify the malaise. The stop-motion and visual quality of the characters are nothing short of superb, but the artificiality is there at all times, putting distance between Michael and that true “human” connection Kaufman so regularly examines. Kaufman and Johnson even chose to make the puppets’ facial seams visible, rather than digitally remove them as nearly all animated productions do.
The moments between Michael and Lisa are immensely delicate – he’s desperate for companionship and even love, while she’s willing to slowly warm up to someone she’s admired from afar. Kaufman’s dialogue is often simple but gorgeous, and Thewlis and Leigh’s contributions mold their scenes into something sincere, unsure, desperate. Animated or not, their hotel room sequence is one of the great romance scenes of recent memory – you’d almost forget you were watching foot-long puppets. And that’s before the intimacy begins…
As in previous Kaufman films, the complexity of the human condition meets an intricate level of environmental detail – and that’s even more impressive in an animated world like the one in Anomalisa. Ultimately, the emotional story takes precedence, as two people teeter on the edge of a relationship, one burdened by the path of his life, the other sensing an open road ahead.