Remember that scene in 1988’s “Big” where Tom Hanks doesn’t “get” the product pitch the so-called expert is feeding to him? That might be you after (or while) watching the animated feature “Anomalisa” from the fertile imagination of Charlie Kaufman. You may feel like Josh Baskin where you have a child’s mind trying to wrap your head around an adult idea. You might come out of the film and know a better idea on how to convey human love, especially from a film being touted by Esquire and many other outlets as the “most deeply human movie of the year.” Yeah, mark this writer down in the Josh Baskin column with an interrupting raised hand.
Using stop-motion puppetry and animation, “Anomalisa” is based on one of Kaufman’s short plays and contains only three voices. David Thewlis leads as Michael Stone, a British transplant who lives and works out of Los Angeles in 2005. Michael is a married father and the author of a corporate self-help guide entitled “How May I Help You Help Them?” Traveling as a motivational speaker pitching the principles of his book, Michael is weighted down by the banal and depressing lifestyle he feels he leads. His mentality is so weakened that everyone that speaks to him, man or woman, sounds like the same uniform male voice (character actor Tom Noonan).
Arriving in Cincinnati, Michael is lonely in an upscale hotel when he contacts Bella, a local former lover he hasn’t seen in ten years. When that meeting over drinks fizzles, he retreats to his room, but has a breakdown. Banging on doors room to room looking for someone, he encounters the plucky and self-deprecating Lisa bearing a literal new voice (that of co-star Jennifer Jason Leigh) that separates her from the monotonous noise of everyone else. Lisa is an awestruck fan of Michael’s book and is set to attend his keynote the next day. Effusive with attraction, Michael invites Lisa to spend the night with him and sees her as a potentially life-changing inspiration.
No one is doubting Charlie Kaufman’s fantastical creativity. His works, including “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation,” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” stand head and shoulders on their own pillars of uniqueness and reverence. “Anomalisa” elevates that distinctive vitae for Kaufman. The puppetry animation is impressively detailed and refreshing from the current trend of digital CGI. However well it moves, the effect is still too purposefully vacant and aloof. No matter how creative Kaufman can be with emotionally invested dialogue and fantasy staging, watching (ahem) intimacy with puppets still might as well be as forced and blunt as “Team America: World Police.” Sorry, but that will evoke more raised eyebrows than heartstrings.
Examining “Anomalisa” for the romance and humanity is more arduous than liberating for what Kaufman and his debuting feature co-director Duke Johnson are trying to say about inspiration. The odd use of Tom Noonan as the constant voice of everyone is more off-putting than symbolic. In 90 short minutes, the essential romance feels underdeveloped and rushed between the bookend doldrums of Michael’s psyche and existence and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s overly quirky, clueless, and intentional unattractive character. Kaufman pens involving conversation and dialogue. It wants to work on serendipity and cannot. If you want to see better personified inanimate objects exhibit tangible love, go watch “WALL-E.”
Circling back to that “Big” reference at the beginning, “Anomalisa” is not trying to insult anyone’s intelligence either. The film, by its very nature, is existential and experimental. It is introspective to no end. The challenge is interpreting what’s in your head and what’s in Michael’s head (literally and figuratively). Maybe watching a guy, puppet or otherwise, struck by the romantic fortune of love only to find it fleeting is the whole point. That’s not everyone’s cup of tea unfortunately. Spike Jonze’s “Her” did this level of romantic existentialism far better two years ago. “Anomalisa” can’t hold a candle to that film. It seeks to tell a simple story to have us reflect on human nature through an intelligent, yet inorganic, shaded lens. One can readily accept that leap and creativity to a certain level. That doesn’t mean the film works or comes close to being transcendent solely because it is built differently. After a brief one-night-only Special Presentation premiere at the 51st Chicago International Film Festival this past October, “Anomalisa” finally arrives at local Chicago theaters this Friday, January 8.
P.S.– The most deeply human movie of the year is, without a doubt and without peer, “Room.” Get out of here, Esquire!
Lesson #1: Romance’s ability to break mental depression— Unconditional love, in its many forms, is a powerful cure for depression, whether it is given or received. Here, conversation and consensual sex does the trick. Lisa provided a spark, albeit a dim one, that lifts Michael out of his funk. Hey, whatever works works. The guy probably can’t travel with a loyal dog or cat.
Lesson #2: Uplifting romance can be fleeting— Maybe it was the limits of the alcohol-fueled patter and a one-night stand, but that mental buoyancy that came from love for Michael can be short-lived and a thirsty problem to satiate. Passion lives in the moment where inspiration and legitimate love last longer.
Lesson #3: Your perceived reality when compared to the reality perceived by others— This is a metaphor for both Michael and us as the audience of “Anomalisa.” Michael’s price with this night of providence is that he travels and has a family waiting at home. How much is he willing to tune out, more than he already has, just to feel something for himself? By comparison, “Anomalisa” is just one artist’s interpretation of an imagined reality. How much are we willing to indulge and comprehend another’s living daydream?