Directed by Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman
Screenplay by Charlie Kaufman
The original Anomalisa was a “sound play” by Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation), performed before an audience only twice. The “sound” aspect referred to the fact that its main character has a disorder that makes him see everyone with the same face and hear the same voice. Character actor Tom Noonan (The House of the Devil, Manhunter) acted out this sea of parts on stage opposite David Thewlis’ (Naked, Restoration) Michael Stone. Stone, famous in the world of customer service, is a married motivational speaker struggling with depression and the need for intimacy when he lands in a Cincinnati hotel for a contracted engagement. There he ruminates about a love he threw away and finds hope in a new woman named Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Thanks to Dino Stamatopoulos (writer, animator, perhaps best known as Starburns on TV’s Community), who introduced Kaufman to director Duke Johnson and helped initiate a Kickstarter project, the play is now a feature length stop-motion animation with puppets. Mirroring the fragile delicacy of the puppetry in Being John Malkovich, Anomalisa feels warmer towards its characters than previous Kaufman efforts. There is a fixed sympathy for their sensitive and daring actions.
When we first meet Michael, he immediately reaches out to an ex-girlfriend that he abruptly walked out on years ago and instead of rekindling flames- he is faced with the emotional damage he did to the woman that he has since fantasized into idolization. This rejection sends him into a mental tailspin. What is real and what is purely inside his head come into question in a gently arresting way. So subtle are the inferences to his weak relationship with what others may actually feel that there is a provocative sense that he could crumble before us at any moment. He is open and weakened to what he perceives that he’s missing from his life in a palpably agitated state. Kaufman reiterates this theme of a man on the verge of mental disintegration again and again in his work, but here there is less pomp and circumstance. Michael is famous on a low level and he pines not for more widespread attention but for a woman to adore in the most private way possible. Whether this has less to do with a woman and more to do with him trying to keep himself together by desperately throwing himself into stimulating situations is up to the viewer. His obvious lust and need for companionship dominates the majority of the storyline. but works an intoxicating spell over Kaufman’s proceedings. They thinly veil the true trouble that Michael is in and how much he compulsively has to have someone else with him to stave off becoming unglued.
The beauty of Anomalisa lies in the fact that while saturated in the mundane, complex emotions lift up the ordinary and bind the compelling storytelling to transfixing imagery. There is an absorption into Michael’s mind that makes one forget you are watching meticulous animation. Because the voices and faces of most of the characters blend together, the normally ordinary differences that Michael and Lisa possess pop out to the audience and rise above the din of Noonan’s chatter of the populace. Noonan’s talent for nuance is all over this film even as he manages not to be meddlesome.
It’s hard not to good-heartedly chuckle at the simplicity of the conversations, but there is also a knowing realness to them. The awkward banter between Michael and Lisa as they quickly get to know each other is endearing and childlike. That being said, there is a sex scene that is far more explicit and dedicated to feeling grounded in what actually transpires between people than in most cinematic fare out there – thoughtfully constructed and lovingly delivered without a snicker. The protracted length of the sequence is a testament to the true intentions of the filmmakers (Kaufman and Johnson co-directed): to recognize them as lonely individuals who need this to happen at this exact moment. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s voice work as Lisa is tinged with sweetness and embarrassment. Her clumsiness and playful flirtations cement her exceptionalism to Michael. As their interactions escalate, Michael unravels in a eerie manner that is an entrancing as it is passionately unsettling.
Anomalisa is an eccentric ride into the triggers we seek from love that help sustain our sense of self and fulfillment. The transcendent nature of our experiences with one another are clearly crucial, but conveying how recklessly we fumble to be free of ourselves in those moments is Anomalisa’s crowning feat.
Fantastic Fest takes place from Sept 24 – Oct 1. Visit the festival’s official website for more information.