Anyone familiar with the work of writer/director Charlie Kaufman would expect nothing less than Anomalisa (opening today). It’s a quirky, mesmerizing exploration of a man trapped under the weight of his mundane life. This is clearly an adult-only film (no kids whatsoever, trust me), making its unique stop-motion animation style even more unnerving to watch. Stealing from its poster, Anomalisa is one of the most “human” films of the year, despite the fact that it stars only puppets. It requires a second-viewing to take the film in wholly, because just seeing it once may be a disservice to the complex issues it tackles. And while it didn’t crack my Top 10 List of 2015, it was damn close.
The story, printed out as a synopsis, does not do the film justice but here it goes anyway. Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) is a popular author and somewhat of a guru in the customer service industry. As the film begins, he is arriving in Cincinnati to deliver a seminar on his new book. He lands at the airport, awkwardly interacts with his taxi driver and checks in at his hotel, “The Fregoli” (more on that later). He settles into his room, orders room service and decides to look up an old flame that lives in the area.
Almost immediately, you will realize that something is…off. Every single person that Michael interacts with has the same exact face, and the same exact voice (provided by Tom Noonan, who brilliantly breathes life into a myriad of characters). It is clear that Michael is not happy and that he is dealing with some complex emotional issues. Even a call home to his wife and child (both again heard with the same voice as everyone else) tip us off to Michael’s psychological troubles.
After a tense encounter with his old flame at the hotel lounge, Michael suddenly hears something…different. A beautiful female voice, the first person we see him encounter that looks and sounds different from the rest. This girl is Lisa, or “Anomalisa” (like “anomale,” voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh). She is in town with a friend to attend Michael’s seminar, and he is a big inspiration in her life even before meeting him in the flesh (or the felt, or whatever). Michael is awe-struck by her, enamored with her, and by the end of the night, feels ready to leave his wife and child to be with her. He has finally found a purpose, something that inspires him. At least, at first.
Kaufman isn’t subtle about his references to “Fregoli” in the film (it’s the name of the hotel Michael stays at, and the audio play in which this film was adapted from, he wrote under the pen name Francis Fregoli). This is in reference to a condition known as the “Fregoli Delusion,” a psychological disorder where “a person holds a delusional belief that different people are in fact a single person.” It’s not directly stated that Michael suffers from this, but it’s clear that this concept is used to illustrate Michael’s thoughts on his own existence.
The film is not all head-trippy though. It is actually, completely relatable. The entire, casual opening of the film puts Michael in situations that are instantly connectable to an audience, from dealing with others at an airport, to the awkward small-talk and banter that takes place inside a cab (Try the chili! And go to the Zoo, it’s Zoo-sized!). Or how about when the bellhop shows him to his room, and points out “and that’s the bathroom.” Or when Michael tries to order room service, only to see about four different buttons on the phone that could symbolize the kitchen.
Like Kaufman has the ability to do, he sucks us into an emotional vortex before we even know it. Relating to Michael’s boring experiences is only the beginning, it’s when he starts interacting with Lisa, and the feelings that pour out afterwards, do we realize that this journey reflects much more than superficial human encounters.
In the end, Anomalisa is really an existential character study, one that makes you ponder some things for yourself. Here is a film that would not have worked the same way if it was done as a live-action movie, or as a cartoon. It has created such a specific, particular look and feel. This is a film that means something, but slyly, Kaufman (and Johnson) leaves that interpretation up to the individual.
Genre: Animation, Comedy, Drama
Run Time: 1 hours, 30 minutes, Rated R
Starring (voices of): David Thewlis, Tom Noonan, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Written by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Synecdoche, New York)
Co-Directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson
Opens locally on Friday, Jan 15, 2016 (check for show times).