There’s simply no easy way to describe “Anomalisa”, which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering it springs from the mind of Charlie Kaufman whose films are never easy to pin down. As the brilliant brain behind “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, “Adaptation”, “Being John Malkovich”, and “Synecdoche, New York”, Kaufman has indulged in the romantic, the bizarre, and the somber, but no matter what his films are always enlightening even if they aren’t always engaging.
Funny then that the stop-motion animated “Anomalisa” would find Kaufman connecting on his most human level yet, considering it’s a film entirely about one man’s lack of human connection. Paired up with Duke Johnson, Kaufman’s kooky genius is matched with a unique visual and narrative style that guarantees nobody will confuse it with other stop-motion films. For one thing, none can lay claim to having one of the strangest and most fascinating cunnilingus scenes ever captured on the big screen.
David Thewlis voices Michael Stone, a lonely author in the field of customer service who heads to Cincinnati for a one-day conference. If being an expert in the field of customer service seems like a bore, then it goes double for Stone who is one of those classic Kaufman “sad sack” characters disillusioned with life as a whole. While married and with a son, Stone is clearly unhappy and sees this trip as a desperate opportunity to reach out to a past love that he left on bad terms. But it’s not that simple, of course. Stone is one of those people who cringe at the banality of casual small talk. He chaffs at the idea of human interaction, which makes this conference where he’s kind of a celebrity, a living nightmare.
That anyone could be a celebrity in the field of customer service is just one of the oddities Kaufman explores, just as it’s weird to have someone who is generally dissatisfied with life in a business all about satisfying others. But the film is titled “Anomalisa” for a reason; Stone eventually meets a shy woman named Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) who turns his life around. He finds her extreme lack of self-confidence oddly charming. He calls her an anomaly because she stands out from the other dull people in his life, which is funny because she’s completely plain in every way. She’s his “Anomalisa”, and the two find comfort in the grueling, antiseptic Hellholes that are business hotels where everyone is just a little too eager to please.
It’s in the exploration of that last aspect where Kaufman and Johnson may lose some viewers as it devolves into a twisted “Twin Peaks”-esque landscape. But then there’s a surreal quality to all of it, especially in the casting of Tom Noonan to voice every character that isn’t Stone or Lisa, and that includes females. As a representation of the film’s central theme of life’s mundanity it may seem a little too direct, especially since little else is spelled out as pointedly. But underneath all of the absurdity is a gentle humor that has been missing from Kaufman lately. Kaufman genuinely seems to be having fun poking at humanity’s silly quirks again, and animation has given him the proper platform for embracing his lighter side. “Anomalisa” may be too idiosyncratic for some to deal with; it can be as exhilarating as it can be uncomfortable. But such is life, and if it were any other way that would be pretty darn mundane.