The first most obvious thing about Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s collective effort in Anomalisa is the aesthetic of the thing, the fact that it is an animated film made with stop-motion 3-D printed puppet animation. That is the first thing you face about the movie and there is never a point where the movie shakes that animated factor out from your mind (at a lot of times, it plays with it), even with the fact that this is the most grounded and unfantastical piece of writing Kaufman has probably ever written in his life. There is no frivolous little movie-breaking twist, there is no meta-commentary, there is simply a story of one human being (turned into two human beings in the middle of the story) based on a stageplay written by Kaufman – with much of the stage performance being heavily driven by sound and voice rather than other components of theatrical presentation. That we suddenly have a visual element to Kaufman’s story is somewhat reserving (and indeed Kaufman at first had been against the idea of having the movie be animated) and that it happens to be animated would seem to some cynical folks like a gimmick, but it turns out to be entirely rewarding and aptly applied to the character(s) and what they’re doing and thinking, undoubtedly thanks to co-director Johnson’s background with animation in the adult swim stop-motion series Moral Orel.
That (s) comes from how I really don’t know if we’re meant to enter any character save for the one we spend the most time with, Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis, one of the three-member cast returning from the stage production), a customer service representative (or former one) who happens to be well-revered in the field thanks to his writing on the matter and is on a business trip to Cincinnati to give a seminar on the subject that he has been granted authorial authority. The fact that Stone is a guru on interacting with people is a kind of irony because Stone is maybe the least personable protagonist Kaufman has ever written.
Stone is indeed has absolutely no happiness in him whatsoever and the first thing Kaufman and Johnson dedicate themselves to is having the audience recognize themselves in the same seat of Stone’s anxiety and inability to connect with the world around him – for one, by having the entire design and color palette of the movie be weak and faded and washed away from the grays of Stone’s hair to the barely beige walls of the hotel he stays at during his seminar visit. The other way comes strictly from the manner of making the film a stop-motion puppet feature and how those puppets are created – the very visible and unobstructed seams on the puppet faces makes all the humans feel fake and masked alongside the inhuman smoothness of the plastic that constructs them. The next most obvious point is from Thewlis’ agonized voice for Stone, giving him a state of constant fatigue from being saddened and disappointed with the world around him. Thewlis subscribes to making Stone so contagiously miserable that we have to sit inside his skin for the 90 minutes and feel down with him. But most effective of all of these choices to make Stone feel alone and the world be seen through his eyes is by having Tom Noonan reprise his roles in Anomalisa.
All of them. Pretty much every human being encountered in Anomalisa – from a taxi driver to Stone’s own wife and son – save for Stone and one more individual is voiced by Noonan to give them all the feeling of no true personality and just being one amorphous thing called society that Stone has to interact with (short of spoiling the movie, there is a school of thought that Stone suffers from a certain mental disorder – pay attention to the name of the hotel he stays at). Noonan keeps this anonymity up while still distinguishing at least the functions of each of his roles, making his subtle ability to portray a universal range of “the same person” unfairly the best in show, even in a small cast as brilliant as this one.
So we spend a good 30 minutes with Stone in this completely empty and hollow world of identity-less beings and then suddenly he finds himself meeting a girl named Lisa, happening to follow her based on the sound of her voice, provided by Jennifer Jason Leigh. So, like the title jokes, she is in fact an anomaly in his world and he finds her worth spending time with enough that he wants to make her one of his many clumsy extramarital flings. After one of the most mature sex scenes I’ve ever seen portrayed in a film, animated or otherwise, with a complete anatomical understanding of the realistic droops or hangs of bodies and lack of necessity to make the characters seem particularly attractive but dedication to keeping the sense of sound and movement natural and unfiltered, Stone decides that Lisa is definitely the one he needs to be with and is ready to throw everything out the window to have her remain in his life.
Kaufman is not the sort of guy to write Manic Pixie Dream Girl stories, we’ve seen that with Being John Malkovich and we’ve seen that with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and we’ll see it here. Before we even get to their sex scene, we know Lisa is nothing special: in fact, she might in fact be less than average and Leigh gives a wonderful performance that exudes individuality and lust for life to separate her from Stone’s moroseness and Noonan’s background voice without taking away from how frankly dumb Lisa seems to be. The movie may take Stone’s side on his depression towards the world; it does not agree with Stone that his infidelity is his potential salvation from it, though. That means it’s only a matter of time before watching this collapse and seeing if Stone is ready to pick up the pieces or Lisa pick herself from how essentially used she is.
And that means recognizing that our two distinctive characters are not that great to spend time, even time as little as 90 minutes. Anomalisa is not an easy or breezy film to get through and doesn’t really leave any place for us to stand on Stone and Lisa’s relationship. One is the sort of pathetic middle-aged man that we’ve seen in many many films well before Kaufman even started writing and the other is an albeit innocent imbecile with not much personality but assumed to have personality in her. We’re meant to see the former as the protagonist but we can’t root for him, while the latter is barely allowed to be seen as anywhere near interesting lest the film actually betray itself (though, admittedly, Kaufman gives Lisa an unexpected show of growth in the very last scene that actually had me leave the film with a big smile on my face).
I can’t say Kaufman has grown as much of a filmmaker until I see him do another movie without a co-director (it seems like Johnson has done a lot more of the practical work, him being the one with an actual background in animation), but I can say that in spite of Anomalisa not really connecting with me on a human level as much as I would have liked to (same as Synecdoche, New York, this time the problem not being the attachment Kaufman holds on his characters, but instead the distance he holds them at), it is a one-of-a-kind movie that I’d call essential viewing for a cinephile. It’s very rare to see a movie THIS grounded in the concept of emotions and humans in the real world be allowed to be animated, without any of the story exactly demanding an animated presentation (the only other movies I can think of doing this are Grave of the Fireflies and maybe When the Wind Blows, though the latter started as a comic already), and yet Kaufman and Johnson make it matter, make the artificiality of the animation give so much definition to the emotional and psychological state the characters are in that I couldn’t possibly imagine the movie being anywhere near as effective as it is (though I understand the stage production had the sex scene being staged as the two actors standing far apart and simply making noises… I’m intrigued by this). In a world of animation that dedicates itself these days to making animated films mandate certain necessities (even if the year hasn’t really been that weak for animation honestly), Anomalisa tears that apart and that truly makes it an anomaly.