I walked into the cinema not knowing a thing about what turned out to be a decidedly unusual adult animated drama. As the final credits rolled and I saw the name of Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) featuring prominently, it all made sense. He deals with the obscure and plays with your mind, just as he does in Anomalisa.
The first animated film directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson and written by Kaufman began its life as a play in 2005. Now the same talent – Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan and David Thewlis – that starred on stage have made the transition to vocal roles in a tender and absurdly humorous dreamscape told in this stop-motion feature.
Michael Stone (voiced by Thewlis), husband, father and respected author of “How May I Help You Help Them?”, is a man crippled by the mundane nature of his life. On a business trip to Cincinnati, where he is scheduled to speak at a convention, he checks into a hotel. There, he is amazed to discover a possible escape from his desperation in the form of an unassuming baked goods sales rep, Lisa Hesselman (Leigh), who just may be the love of his life. Only this man who preaches strong customer service skills is wracked by insecurities and is most likely suffering from a mental illness or several.
Darkly comedic and surreal, Anomalisa is original and intriguing but will only appeal to a select audience. While the characters are hardly cute or appealing like they inevitably are in a Disney film, they are grounded … much more “real”, if you like. The filmmakers deliberately left the seams on the faces of Michael, Lisa and other characters to set the animation apart from typical stop-motion fare. Indicatively two separate faceplates on a character — the forehead and the lower face — are often painted out digitally to create a more polished, anthropomorphic look. But Kaufman and Johnson preferred a warts-and-all approach, in keeping with Michael Stone’s existential predicament.
I can’t say I particularly warmed to the stop-motion. Movement of the characters by foot, for instance, appeared decidedly clunky, but that didn’t stop me from becoming invested in Michael Stone’s journey.
Anomalisa fits seamlessly alongside Kaufman’s signature works, featuring hapless protagonists enduring the long night of the soul under surreal, darkly comedic circumstances. With its play-on-words title infusing the writer-director’s profound love of wordplay and language, Anomalisa addresses typically Kaufmanesque themes. They include isolation, loneliness, melancholy and depression, and the search for connection — or “a sort of hope for connection”, as Kaufman puts it. The language is often raw and unbridled. The script is odd. There are no beg pardons, just the way Kaufman likes it.
In the end, what does it all mean? Who knows, other than the fact that Michael Stone, like the rest of us, is just trying to get by each day with a little bit more purpose and joy. Perhaps that is, indeed, enough. I applaud Kaufman’s individuality and creativity. Rated MA, Anomalisa scores an 8 out of 10.
Director: Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman
Cast: (Voices of) David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan
Release Date: 4 February 2016
Rating: MA15+ – Strong sex scene
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television