Cast: (voiced by) David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan
Directors: Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson
Writer: Charlie Kaufman
Trust Charlie Kaufman to make an animated film unlike any other ever made. As a writer and director known for his visual creativity, surrealist narratives and dreamlike atmospheres, one could only have wondered what he could achieve within the realms of animation. However it is also interesting that a filmmaker known for exploring psychological themes and venturing into the depths of human emotion should choose a format that is by its very nature artificial. While Kaufman showed in Being John Malkovich just how expressive puppets could be, placing the whole story within the world of puppetry is a different thing entirely. However, after about five or ten minutes of watching this film, it became all too evident that Anomalisa could only have worked as an animation. While the story itself is surprisingly simple (given the strikingly complex narratives penned by Kaufman in the past), it is a story that thoroughly embraces the world it inhabits.
The film takes place across a 24-hour period and follows the character of Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a famed and successful author and expert in customer service going through a midlife crisis. He is unhappy with his work, his family and his station in life and exudes a melancholic air as he drifts aimlessly. He flies into Cincinnati where he is scheduled to deliver a conference and checks into his hotel. Every person to cross his path along the way such as his taxi driver and the bellboy is indistinguishable to him as they all speak with the same inexpressive, monosyllabic voice (Tom Noonan). It isn’t until he hears a voice out in the hallway, an entirely different voice from that possessed by every other character, that he is suddenly awakened from his lethargic state. He discovers that the voice belongs to Lisa Hesselman (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a shy, sheepish woman with low self-esteem who gets embarrassed when receiving any sort of attention. Michael is immediately infatuated and asks her to spend the night with him.
Initially I took this film to be Lost in Translation with puppets, but Anomalisa is actually a very different kind of beast. Although they tackle similar themes of dejection, alienation and romanticism, Kaufman’s is an altogether sadder and stranger film than Coppola’s is. Michael Stone seems at first to be a forlorn soul experiencing a state of estrangement as he traverses this impassive, artificial world. Yet, the more we see, the more one gets the feeling that Michael is the architect of his own misery. After checking into his room he calls up an old flame who lives in Cincinnati, hoping their reunion might lead to something. During their meeting however Michael seems utterly oblivious to the grief he inflicted upon this woman when he left her completely out of the blue eleven years ago. After later meeting Lisa and spending their romantic night together, he readily declares his intention to leave his wife and son for this woman whom he has idealised in his mind only for her to gradually transition into another blank face with that same Tom Noonan voice. Michael shows himself to be less of a crestfallen wanderer than he is a tragically flawed individual doomed to keep making the same mistakes over and over again. His behaviour would be utterly appalling if he weren’t so downright pathetic.
What’s startling about this animation is how it manages to maintain a balance between artificiality and reality. The characters of course look like puppets with their joints and rubber bodies (I should probably mention that there is some puppet nudity in this film that’s handled with a little more artistry than in Team America), but they move and behave like real people. This effect owes just as much to the three actors providing the voices as it does to the puppeteers. So much of the emotion in this film is deftly conveyed through the inflections heard in the dialogue that align perfectly with the carefully crafted facial expressions. The film fully embraces its format as an animation with the use of a collective face and voice being shared by every side character being just one example. There is one particularly great scene following Michael and Lisa’s night of passion that fully demonstrates the effectiveness of this medium in a way that only the mind of Charlie Kaufman could have envisioned.
Just like with any other Kaufman film, Anomalisa is a film that will have to be revisited in order to be fully appreciated. It is abstract in its approach, complex in its thematic discussion and ambiguous in its ending. What resonated most strongly with me however was the emotional weight of it all. This is a tragic film about the agony of mundanity, the strangeness of uniformity and the delusion of an idealised romance. There is a sad beauty to this film, the kind that Charlie Kaufman is so great at depicting. The artificial effect of the puppetry adds an extra dimension to this film that would simply have not been there had it been done in live-action. Anomalisa is just as strange and as fascinating as any one of Kaufman’s other films and is astoundingly unlike any other animated film that I’ve ever come across.