Director: Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson
Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman
Starring: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan
Runtime: 90 Minutes
Many, if not all, of Charlie Kaufman’s productions in the world of cinema have followed a similar path of execution; introspective pictures that see their characters facing existential conundrums, often during middle-age, and their perceptions of reality and humanity are slowly peeled back through the aid of magic realism. Relationships are dissected by the author looking back on their history, as he strives to figure out the intricacies of what makes people tick, trying to distil the components of life into absorbable parables by putting himself in their shoes.
To this end, Anomalisa might not only be one of his most perfected works at channelling this formula, but a thoughtful and artistically vibrant arbitration on the fleeting loneliness of life, and how moments of genuine discovery – however momentary or intimate – can make the cries against the dark worth the throbbing aches of our humdrum existence.
David Thewlis plays the lonely Michael Stone; a self-help author checking into a Cincinnati hotel to give a speech at a convention on customer service, who seems to be able to help everyone but himself. His efforts at relationships have been emotionally depleted, to the point where he can no longer see the people around him as individuals anymore - rather, they are but background noise that populates the emptiness of his hollow shell of a life. His immediate strains for human contact lead him to an old flame that he hurt badly years ago, and in turn, he is completely unaware of the damage he has caused to her by abruptly returning to her life.
Stone’s understanding of the world becomes the quite literal conceit behind the film’s spectacular visual construction. A stop-motion animation that uses abnormally lifelike character models and movements to display the universe exactly as Michael sees it. Everyone besides himself is not only played by a single voice actor - Tom Noonan, showing unsung range and complexity in his multitude of roles – but also house facial features of the exact same mould and blank characteristics. There’s a recurring habit in Kaufman’s screenplays whereby characters mistake the words, and occasionally the identities, of other people within the lead character's presence. Here the audience enters this same cloud of confusion as Michael wonders through a sea of familiarity where no voice or figure appears to register above any other.
That is until Michael stumbles across Lisa (The Hateful Eight’s Jennifer Jason Leigh), a young woman in town to hear his speech that looks and sounds like no one else he has ever met before. This bust of animate vitality and imperfection is everything that Michael has been longing for, and with her entrance into the film you want nothing more than for her to just stay around and keep talking. The desperation of the situation takes on deeper layers than Michael’s psychological state, as he wants to live in the moment for as long as they can before returning to the reality of his wife and child back home.
As with the heart-wrenching complexity of the central coupling in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, as doomed as you understand this pairing is with all the arrogant abandon that supports it, there’s an irrepressible allure to watching these characters together on screen. And, whilst knowing that the release is somehow inevitable in the long run, you understand that the escapism works because it is a passing and finite recourse of happiness in their lives. Michael’s defiance to understand this for what it’s worth is what will unavoidably lead to his own self-destruction, and the devastating final movement of the film is the evidence of his own heedless nature.
A lot of what has been said here might give the dour impression that Anomalisa is a bleakly real depiction of what life and love can sometimes become for us, and to a degree it is. Were it not for our alignment with his subjectivity, Michael could be read as self-destructive and utterly self-absorbed, with little empathy or understanding of anyone else around him. But there’s an abundance of charm, comedy and warmth that combat its sadness, due to not only the chemistry of its leads but also the rich humanity of its characters in their sudden love affair. The lovemaking scene, in particular, is so tender, humble and unapologetically awkward that it might be one of the finest sex scenes in recent cinema history.
Even through this, the fact that these are puppets performing all this will not faze or detach audiences because of the way in which Anomalisa is shot and executed. There’s a natural presentation to the animation, with so much time dedicated to the simplest of tasks that could otherwise be accomplished in live action, but here take on a transcendent form as everything takes on a heaviness and weight. Co-director and animator Duke Johnson and the craftsmen at Starburns Industries have done incredible work at breathing life into these inanimate objects, with direction so strong and imaginative that you may slowly forget that what you’re watching is a product of technical skill and precision.
Yet, for all of the beauty and technical genius on show, Anomalisa might not be a perfect movie for many. There’s a detour involving a ‘toy shop’ that doesn’t quite seem to fit the with films tone, and by the end of its runtime, there will potentially be questions concerning the essentials of what has been shown. The resolve of the film’s plot, its narrative and character growth is something that is handed to the audience to contemplate. Through the eyes of Michael Stone, it allows us to see ourselves, to think upon our own desires and wants with cautious optimism, knowing that we are never truly alone in a world of different meetings and experiences.