It’s been seven long years since a Charlie Kaufman movie has been released. His last film and directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, was brilliant but a box office failure. This prompted him to launch a kickstarter to get Anomalisa, his stop-motion feature about a depressed customer service guru trying to make sense of life, made. The process came with both creative advantages and budgetary disadvantages, the biggest advantage being that Kaufman didn’t have any studio restrictions when crafting something this unique and bizarre. It’s pretty incredible Anomalisa got made without any studio interference, but it’s an absolute miracle it came out more polished and concise than Kaufman’s previous efforts that had an endless amount of outside tinkering.
Anomalisa opens on a plane with a barely famous customer service guru Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis). He’s flying to Cincinnati to speak about his book on customer service and the passenger next to him (voiced by Tom Noonan) won’t leave him alone. When he gets off the plane, he has to deal with a pesky cab driver that insists he has time to see the Cincinnati zoo because it’s only zoo-sized (also voiced by Tom Noonan) before dealing with a bunch of other drone-like customer service representatives all voiced by Tom Noonan. This is to show Michael’s perception of the rest of the world’s population. Everyone is the same with the exception of him. Yeah, it’s next-level narcissism. Even his wife and eight-year-old are voiced by Tom Noonan, which is great because hearing Tom Noonan nonchalantly voice an eight-year-old is among the funniest things I’ve ever heard. All of this changes when he meets Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), who for some reason sounds and looks different than everybody else. She’s an anomaly and her name is Lisa.
Anomalisa is a tightly structured 90-minute character study that centers solely around Michael. Kaufman has made his most simple movie yet and I’d wager, his best. The first stretch of Anomalisa is the funniest film I’ve seen all year, but it slowly morphs into a very poignant and painfully realistic film about human nature. I’ve never seen stop-motion puppets emote in the way Kaufman’s emote. There’s also nothing manipulative about Anomalisa, especially in it’s love story between Michael and Lisa. Studio interference might have made Lisa incredibly intelligent and quirky or might have made Michael’s wife a horrible witch so the audience could justify him having an affair. Thankfully, Anomalisa doesn’t fall into these tropes. Lisa is a fairly stupid character and her sweetness is primarily built on her practically non-existent self-esteem. Michael’s wife isn’t cruel or demanding, even if his eight-year-old is kind of a little prick. And Michael doesn’t have Lisa’s best interests at heart, it seems at times he’s just using her as a vessel to try and cure his unhappiness.
If Anomalisa sounds terribly cynical and depressing, it is and it isn’t. While not the type of animated film that critics would call “life-affirming”, it doesn’t completely disappear up it’s own asshole and wallow in it’s own pessimism. I don’t want to say the film pulls any of it’s punches, but I do think that the puppets help soften the blow of some of the more upsetting moments. Some might find this diluted, but this actually makes it’s characters more accessible. Part of this is due to the extraordinary voice work by David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh and especially Tom Noonan, who somehow manages to create dozens of wholly different characters while restrained to giving them all the same voice.
While it’s certainly less of a downer than the gaping black hole of misery that was Synecdoche, New York, parts of Anomalisa are definitely more uncomfortable to watch than any other Kaufman film. Co-directed by Duke Johnson, who helmed the excellent stop motion Community episode, Anomalisa looks beautiful which wonderfully contrasts with the darker parts of the story. Truly one of the most unique filmgoing experiences I’ve ever had in my life, Anomalisa is a technical marvel as well as a masterstroke in storytelling. You can’t afford to miss it when it opens in theaters December 30th. Grade: A