Charlie Kaufman, the writer behind Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, has always been something of an art-house anomaly when it comes to delivering quirky curios that sate the highbrow quest for something different and challenging. His latest, Anomalisa, certainly fits the bill.
The film is a stop motion-animation journey into the psyche of a self-centered motivational speaker who may or may not suffer from some form of psychosis. It's slow moving and mundane yet profoundly unearthly as it plumbs the human condition and the eternal quest for fulfillment.
The project, which Kaufman originally conceived as a sound play (think a podcast or radio) for composer Carter Burwell and the Coen Brothers, came to life via a Kickstarter campaign and a partnership with stop-motion animator Duke Johnson, a man with such credits as Mary Shelley's Frankenhole on his CV.
The rendering of place and people — the puppets were made in part from a 3-D printer — are astonishing in the degree of detail and craftsmanship, especially the miniature sets which are limited to the inside of a hotel, an airplane, a cab, and a dildo bodega. The overall effect becomes a stirringly piquant amalgam that's something like The Polar Express meets Team America: World Police.
The cast too is limited — there are just three performers. David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh voice the two leads, while character actor Tom Noonan speaks for everyone else — women, men, and children. It's a strange olio shoehorned into a rather regular tread as Michael Stone (Thewlis), a customer service expert, British ex-pat, and something of a minor celeb (author of How May I Help You Help Them?), flies into Cincinnati to give one of his speeches at a convention. Everything is a bit off as Michael lands. The male singers behind the choral music on his iPod are horribly out of sync. Everyone speaks with the same voice (Noonan's) and has the same general facial profile regardless of age, gender, or physical size. And when he gets in a cab desperate for a cigarette, there's a no smoking sign because the driver is asthmatic.
Everything moves in small, sleepy slices like that, but the film is rife with tension, mostly between Michael's ears. The name of the hotel that Michael checks into, the Al Fregoli is a tell, and early on we learn Michael has an angry ex-lover, a wife, and child back home in L.A. he's detached from, and a high opinion of himself. Besides observing a man masturbating in an office across the way and an ill-advised drink with an old flame, nothing really extraordinary happens in Cincinnati. But then Michael meets Lisa (Leigh).
Lisa and her travel mate are customer service reps at the convention for Michael's speech. They are both in awe of him. Given Michael's aloof demeanor, it seems improbable that a nervous yet chatty wallflower like Lisa would draw his attentions, but as a result of Thewlis's deft emotive inflections, there's a clear loneliness present under Michael's hyper-critical voice. In a later scene after Michael declares Lisa, his Anomalisa ("anomaly" plus "Lisa," get it?), he abruptly derides her for clanking her teeth on her fork while she eats among other control-freakish nits. If Michael weren't so flawed or didn't have small moments of empathy, he might just come off as a bloviating philanderer leveraging his station in life, but Kaufman clearly loves the troubled character and develops him with care and nuance.
The strange, pedantic tenor of Anomalisa works to its advantage, as it becomes hypnotic and intoxicating in much the same way as Richard Linklater's animated slacker flick Waking Life did. The blurred lines between reality and delusion and the dicey credibility of Michael's POV offer rewards, as does the animation's overall orchestration, which is nothing short of genius. You're likely to get pulled from the story wondering just how the filmmakers got the puppets and their environment to line up together so seamlessly on film.
The other great treat besides Thewlis, who embodies the heart and soul of his flawed protagonist, is Leigh, who is enjoying something of a renaissance thanks to this and The Hateful Eight. A light comes on in the film when Lisa enters — she's vulnerable, naive, and unrestrained, blurting out whatever is on her mind with sweet, sheepish sincerity, even when she coaches Michael on the correct oral celerity during cunnilingus. Like much of the film, it's a tender and telling scene, tinged with awkward human fragility.
Anomalisa will certainly not be to everyone's taste, but it is a trove of complex reflections delicately interwoven with masterful puppetry. Wondrous and eerily somber, Kaufman's latest quirk offers much for curious minds.