Michael Stone, the antihero of “Anomalisa,” sees the same faces and hears the same voices. The conformity that Michael perceives is a result of his distorted outlook on life. He trudges through his days with apathy and nostalgia, and the homogeneity that he thinks is everywhere – everyone looking and sounding the same, with no trace of distinctive personality – is in reality a reflection of his own depression. Michael, who has garnered mild fame as a customer service expert, wants to escape his marriage and find someone, or something, that can lift him out of his emotional fog.
Stone’s inner paralysis drives the narrative of Charlie Kaufman’s latest exploration into the human psyche. Kaufman, who has pushed the limits of bizarre filmmaking with movies such as “Being John Malkovich,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” and “Synecdoche, New York,” has perhaps made his most disorienting movie to date. “Anomalisa” is told entirely through the prism of puppet animation. The combination of puppets and the fact that all but two of the characters are, regardless of gender, voiced by Tom Noonan, adds a layer of creepiness to the film. The strangeness of “Anomalisa” makes it difficult to digest at first. Aside from an inspired sequence inside of a cab, the first third of the movie struggles to achieve any sort of momentum. However, Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson eventually unveil a fascinating portrait of unhappiness.
David Thewlis is wonderful as Michael Stone, but the movie’s most enchanting jolt of energy comes courtesy of Jennifer Jason Leigh. Leigh portrays Lisa, the one person who awakens a sense of life and vigor in Michael. Whereas all other voices sound like Tom Noonan to Michael, Lisa’s voice sounds lovely and real. When she sings “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” Michael hears magic and the promise that life is worth living. Jennifer Jason Leigh provides more than a voice to Lisa. She gives the character the full depth of humanity and empathy. It is a breathtaking performance.
Lisa is the most vital part of “Anomalisa,” yet she is treated as little more than a cog in Michael’s psychological journey. “Anomalisa” is far too male-centric in its vision. Michael is indeed an interesting subject, and his story allows the film to examine themes of loneliness, love, and depression. His narcissism, though, occasionally overwhelms the film’s salient insights into the human mind. Michael is tough to tolerate at times, and the movie would be a richer experience if it devoted the same intellectual curiosity to Lisa as it does to Michael.
Flaws aside, “Anomalisa” is a worthwhile endeavor. Charlie Kaufman’s eccentricity may not always work to his advantage, but when he hits his target, he is capable of challenging the audience with introspective, existential questions. Upon walking out of the theater after seeing “Anomalisa,” I was haunted the movie’s dramatic themes and a little freaked out by the puppet animation that Kaufman employs with stylistic zeal.