Having first dealt with puppets tangentially in Being John Malkovich, writer Charlie Kaufman has now fashioned an entire movie around them in the supremely idiosyncratic and quietly moving Anomalisa.
Swapping marionettes for models, Kaufman co-directs here with animation guru Duke Johnson (TV’s Morel Orel and the stop-motion episode of Community), bringing to life a uniquely Kaufman-esque tale about self-loathing and the redemptive power of love as only he can.
Featuring only three voice actors and taking place mostly in one mundane location, Anomalisa seems an odd fit for stop-motion animation. The story is incredibly focused and fit more for theatre, which makes sense as it began life as a 2005 “sound play”. On the surface there seems to be little about this small-scale tale that is cinematic, but the gambit pays off as Kaufman weaves his signature dialogue in a transfixing web that gains an undercurrent of power as it draws you in.
David Thewlis voices Michael, a travelling customer service guru touching down in Cincinnati to give a motivational speech. He’s staying at the Fregoli hotel, a reference to a psychological delusion of the same name that becomes increasingly relevant as time goes on. The harried, worn-down Michael calls home to his wife and young son, and seeks to connect with an ex who lives in the area, as he forelornly drinks and has what’s generally referred to as a dark night of the soul.
In an interesting twist, character actor Tom Noonan voices all other characters (save one) in his smoothly mellifluous voice. That voice becomes increasingly malevolent as Michael’s paranoia grows and he begins to see everyone else as parts of the same entity, and himself in the crosshairs of some unknown scheme. The only voice of salvation comes in the form of Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a shy conference attendee who’s travelled to hear Michael speak and meets him over drinks in the hotel bar.
Much like Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy, Kaufman then charts the sweet early stages of a romance that here is built on mutual loneliness, the convenience of location, and a deeper desire to connect on a human level. That sounds high-falutin’ and weird, but the story’s treated with a tenderness not usually afforded most movies – let alone those that are comprised entirely of puppets. Plus there’s a lengthy, fumblingly awkward sex scene that puts Team America: World Police‘s to shame.
And speaking of puppets, it’s amazing how quickly that barrier melts away and you just view these characters as people. There’s seams on their faces (the different expressions are achieved by swapping out thousands of different eye/mouth sets) that likely could’ve been removed in post-production but were left in as perhaps a nod towards human messiness. It’s a telling detail, especially in a genre like stop-motion that is typically so precise.
The deceptively straightforward plot is light on incident but leaves plenty open to interpretation, especially as Bush-era themes of persecution are woven into Michael’s delusions. It builds to a head as Michael gives a Paddy Cheyefsky-like speech that deviates from his rehearsed topics, managing to tackle heady topics with a deft touch. Even if the intent can sometimes be a bit obtuse, the pleasure comes in the emotional complexity of these characters and the honesty with which they’re portrayed.
The sound design bears mentioning as well, as ambient noise and music, along with the choice to use Tom Noonan for all roles except Michael and Lisa, are directly tied to the plot of the film and delicately achieved. The voice performances themselves are flawless too, halting and speaking in natural rhythms that speak to the actor’s familiarity with one another and the material (they’re all reprising their roles from the stage show).
Anomalisa is almost destined to have a narrow audience – it’s a talky, adult film about depression and alienation achieved entirely through stop-motion animation that at first might seem off-putting. It’s name itself is a mouthful, a weird portmanteau of anomaly and Lisa that is explained in one of the film’s many engaging scenes. The fact that such a cinematic risk exists (it was funded by a Kickstarter campaign) is cause for celebration alone. The fact that it’s one of the year’s best is an ever rarer anomaly, one that will surely be embraced by the small but devoted Kaufman (and Johnson) fans that find solace and voice in the type of film that can occasionally feel as if it was made just for you.
Directed by Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman
Runtime: 90 minutes