No one adapts the minutiae of human interaction better than writer/director Charlie Kaufman. The mundane and feelings of alienation have been constant themes in all of his films, and they once again take center stage in his latest, Anomalisa. Shot completely using stop-motion animation, set in about three locations, and spending a good amount of its run-time on seemingly banal interactions, the movie defies easy description. Yet, it finds a way to burrow in one’s mind for days after viewing it. That’s the thing about Kaufman’s films; you may not completely understand them, but they have a strange way of understanding you. Anomalisa deals with such raw and relatable human feelings that the underlying themes resonate greatly.
As the film begins, Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), a Los Angeles-based customer service expert and author, is landing in Cincinnati, Ohio for a convention speech the following day. He checks in to the plush Fregoli hotel (an extension of the pen name Kaufman used in writing the play the movie is based on) and settles in to his room. After a contentious phone call with his wife, Michael finds himself looking up an old flame he hasn’t seen in eleven years. After their encounter goes south over happy hour, he’s set to retire to his room. That’s when he meets Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), a woman unlike any he’s ever met.
Any synopsis of Anomalisa is ripe for spoilers, which will be avoided here. The film’s masterstroke is making otherwise harmless and innocuous conversation meaningful and filled with between-the-lines context. The great irony of the story is that Michael, a well-regarded expert (“your book raised our productivity by 90%!”) in customer service, is impatient and rude to just about everyone he meets. This clashes effectively with the substance he feels in his life after meeting Lisa, who’s introverted, doesn’t view herself as attractive, and is shocked when Michael shows interest in her. The stop-motion animation is nothing short of breathtaking, introducing specifics to the medium previously unseen or even attempted. Details such as steam on a bathroom mirror and water on a car’s windshield are essentially photo-realistic. Despite the fact that no effort is made to hide that the characters are dolls, Anomalisa often feels as real and textured as any feature film. That’s also due in large part to a trio of first-rate voice performances, led by Thewlis as Stone. With his distinctive English accent and instantly recognizable inflections, Thewlis brings Michael to life in full three-dimensional glory. He’s complemented perfectly by an understated, at-times heartbreaking Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lisa. Insecure and experiencing something completely new, Leigh’s voice work is perfect. As “everybody else,” veteran Tom Noonan brings depth to all of the ancillary characters.
Anomalisa‘s final moments feel a bit rushed, but they’re certainly potent. The whole film has that effect. Kaufman has a way of making the intricacies of his stories bloom in the hours after viewing his pictures. Anomalisa works in a few laughs, most notably an extended sequence of a buck-naked Stone trying to get the shower water to cool down. It also has perhaps the most truthful sex scene ever put on film. With puppets. It embodies what we’ve come to expect from Kaufman: a venture into the strange while somehow staying grounded in reality. Just like life.
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Length: 90 Minutes
Rating: R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity and language.
Theatrical Release: December 30, 2015 (Limited)
Directed by: Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson.
Written by: Charlie Kaufman. Based upon Kaufman’s play of the same name, written as Francis Fregoli.
Cast: David Thewlis (voice), Jennifer Jason Leigh (voice), Tom Noonan (voice)