Charlie Kaufman brings us one of the most human, and adult, films in this fascinating stop-motion animated movie.
Michael Stone (David Thewlis) is a middle-aged man seemingly caught in a rut of mundane life. To him, the world has become dull and boring. No one understand him and he’s constantly questioning if it’s everyone else, or himself, that is mad. The film opens as he’s traveling to Cincinnati to deliver a speech on customer service. At first it’s easy to identify with Michael. At one time or another most of us have felt unsatisfied with life, or have been on a long trip where we were more interested in getting to our hotel room than engaging in small talk with random people. Finally arriving in his room Michael calls his wife and son but seems annoyed and distant even with them.
At this point it becomes clear that everyone else in this film looks and sounds the same. While each character has a different hairstyle, clothing, body, and cadence, they posses the same generic face and mellow voice (Tom Noonan). Suddenly, almost miraculously, he hears a unique, incredibly sweet, voice. Frantically banging on doors down the hotel hall, he discovers the voice belongs to Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a young girl in town to see his seminar the following day.
The rest of the film explores the budding relationship between these two apparently unique spirits and the providence that brought them together. If you’ve enjoyed any of Kaufman’s previous films you are sure to love this one. It’s fascinating on so many levels. “Anomalisa” was co-directed by Duke Johnson who is the guy behind other great stop-motion animated shows such as “Moral Orel” and “Frankenhole.” The world they have created here is amazing. Cinematically speaking, not another stop-motion film comes close. Artistic framing, long takes, realistic characters; it’s mind blowing. Each of the characters were first modeled on a computer and then 3D printed, similar to a number of modern stop-motion films, but never have they looked so realistic. (We can even see them breathing!) Slight changes in expression are easily recognizable. These “puppets” are pulling us in with their physical performances as if they were real. One odd choice is the seams where the face pieces swap out between frames were not digitally erased as typically done. It can be distracting but is a visual metaphor for the flaws each character sees in themselves, reinforced by Michael fretting that he is “falling apart!”
What actually transpires between Michael, Lisa, and the other women he meets that night is up for discussion. Our opinions on films are usually a reflection of who we are, but never more so than with “Anomalisa.” To some, the surprisingly graphic sex scene is seen as “sweet and touching”, but to others this same scene could be “manipulative” or “pornographic.” With many (all?) of Kaufman’s tales there are questions as to what is real and what it means to be human. Did the events of this 24 hour period play out as we experienced it? Surely some of it was simply a fantasy, but just how much? Who is to blame for how Michael feels? Is the world really that drab, or is it simply his self-inflicted perception? And what about how he interacts with others? There’s a sharp irony to the passages he quotes from his best seller; advice that he preaches on a professional level but refuses to apply in his personal life. What about Lisa? By the end of the film, is she in a better place? We can only answer these questions based on our own perceptions of the world. Open ended without being ambiguous, “Anomalisa” is a masterpiece whose story and themes will haunt you for months afterwards.