Kaufman’s tale of existential despair benefits from stop-motion artistry
Writer/director Charlie Kaufman returns to exploring familiar themes of existential angst with Anomalisa, the first film he’s both written and directed since 2008’s Synechdoche, New York. Judging from this new film, Kaufman hasn’t suddenly embraced a positive, life-is-beautiful philosophy in the intervening six years; indeed, if anything, his new picture is even more heartbreaking and pessimistic.
Instead of watching the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman wrestle with questions of meaning and identity, though, as we did in Synechdoche, this time around, our leading man is a sad-sack stop-motion puppet voiced by British actor David Thewlis. Your enjoyment of Anomalisa will thus largely depend on your tolerance for puppet dialog, puppet nudity, puppet sex, and puppet nervous breakdowns.
To be fair, the stop-motion puppet animation is the best thing in Anomalisa. Charlie Kaufman, who co-directed here with Duke Johnson (best known for directing episodes of TV’s cult hit Community), has done a superb job bringing his animated characters to vivid life. The minutiae of everyday existence is rendered in exquisite detail in each frame of the picture, making the film both lovely and clever to behold.
And, for its first two-thirds or so, the picture is just as unique and compelling as the visuals. We meet Thewlis’s Michael Stone, a transplanted Brit living in Los Angeles, as he’s en route to a conference in Cincinnati. Michael is a customer service expert (he’s authored a popular book called How May I Help You Help Them?) who will be delivering a supposedly inspiring speech to customer service reps, even though he pretty much personifies Thoreau’s “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” observation. “Everything’s boring,” he says at one point to an old friend.
The night before the presentation, we watch Michael as he settles into the conference hotel, ordering room service, smoking, calling home to check in with his wife and son, and nervously calling an ex who lives in the area. What is odd about these seemingly prosaic actions, though, is that every person who interacts with Michael — male or female, adult or child — has the same, affectless voice (all voiced by actor Tom Noonan). And thus we get our first clue that all may not be right in the world of Michael’s mind.
Indeed, in a sly, winking joke to the audience, Kaufman, who based the movie on a radio play he wrote under the nom de plume Francis Fregoli, has named the hotel in which the majority of the film takes place The Fregoli. And wouldn’t you know – there is actually a rare medical condition called the Fregoli Delusion, or the Delusion of Doubles, which causes its sufferers to perceive different people as one single person, who, the sufferer believes, may be in disguise, and may be persecuting the sufferer. Aside from the hotel name, this disorder is never actually mentioned in the film, but several times Michael laments that he feels as if something is very wrong with him.
Only when Michael meets Lisa (voiced by the wonderful Jennifer Jason Leigh), a shy but exuberant customer service rep from Akron, does he begin to snap out of his ennui. Michael is able to hear Lisa’s voice as it really is, a near miraculous occurrence that he finds invigorating and life-changing. He nicknames her “Anomalisa,” combining her name with the “anomaly” of meeting her and her unique and melodious voice (the scene in which Lisa sings Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” is one of the picture’s best moments).
Michael and Lisa’s tentative and sweet love affair is the heart of the movie, and is tenderly and realistically portrayed, with all the awkward sweetness and nervous energy befitting of such an encounter. Shortly after this connection is established, though – and just when the viewer is really becoming invested and interested – Kaufman veers into one of his hallucinatory turns, à la his earlier screenplays (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), and begins to lose the viewer.
Without giving too much away – since, in the end, this review is recommending the movie – just with a few caveats about what to expect – suffice to say that the last part of the film becomes more like a surrealistic endurance exercise, and the intriguing human drama of the film’s first section falls by the way side. During his speech to the conference-goers, Michael asks them, “What is it to be human? What is it to ache? What is it to be alive?” Kaufman and Johnson are asking these questions, as well, and when Michael replies to himself, “I don’t know,” we see that the filmmakers don’t have any particular insight, either. They are leaving it to us to decide if Michael’s journey has any meaning – for him, and, ultimately, for us.
Anomalisa opens today at Bay Area theaters.