Pulling all the strings
In order to become fully realized as a film, the harsh metaphysical whimsy of a Charlie Kaufman script requires an equally visionary visual collaborator. Many critics loved Kaufman’s 2008 directorial debut Synecdoche, New York, but I could never get past the film’s pushiness and oppressive visual space. It felt as though he missed the cinematic panache of directors like Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) and Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).
In the stop-motion animated mind-blower Anomalisa, Kaufman finds another visionary collaborator in co-director Duke Johnson, best known for his work on Moral Orel. This is Kaufman’s first foray into stop-motion animation, and yet Anomalisa is a distinctly Kaufman-esque film. From its gorgeous opening shot of a commercial airplane gliding through a birth-canal sky, the camera pulling back to reveal the inside of a different plane, the film captures the fluidity between the real and the surreal, and between insides and outsides.
Customer service expert Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) sits in the plane, traveling to Cincinnati to deliver a lecture based on his book, How May I Help You Help Them? Despite his vocation, Michael can barely tolerate dealing with other people. He’s deeply depressed and disconnected, overweight and alcoholic, middle-aged and miserable, overly touchy and bored out of his mind.
Even worse: every voice that he hears sounds like the exact same person, whether it’s the asthmatic taxi driver or the hotel bar waitress or William Powell and Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey. When the horribly self-involved Michael hears the unique voice of mousy customer service rep Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh, reminding us with this film and The Hateful Eight that she’s one of most fearless and rigorous movie actors of all time), he thinks she may hold the key to his happiness.
The great character actor Tom Noonan provides every voice in the film besides Michael and Lisa, a narrative gimmick that places us squarely inside of Michael’s storm-cloud subconscious. It helps that Kaufman and Johnson craft a universe of richly detailed banality, exploring the dimensions of the upscale Cincinnati hotel where most of the action takes place with winding tracking shots and patient long takes.
And in the greatest sex scene in recent memory, Kaufman and Johnson eschew the oblique editing, candlelit writhing and inane sheet-grabbing of the standard movie sex scene in favor of a realistically awkward real-time sequence. It’s something that we rarely get in movies—a moment of true vulnerability and physical intimacy between ordinary, out-of-shape people … and it’s all puppets. It’s miraculous.
Despite the inherent unreality of the stop-motion world, the details of the film are breathtakingly human, such as the moment where Michael’s still-wounded ex-girlfriend tucks her hands inside of her sweater sleeves. Achingly real and morosely absurd, Anomalisa is a masterpiece of emotional malaise and metaphysical disconnection, vivid and remote like a waking dream.