On some level, every work of art is a reflection of the human condition. Who we are and how we relate to others and the world around us is the concern of every artist, but for some, that concern is an obsession.
Charlie Kaufman is that obsession. Known initially as the writer of quirky and philosophically complex screenplays—Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation (2002), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)—Kaufman stepped out on to a larger stage as writer/director in 2008’s Synecdoche, New York, a movie that manages to encompass all things, particularly how the individual relates to the sum of all parts.
Seven years later, Kaufman follows that grandness with something much smaller—puppet-sized small. Anomalisa centers on Michael (voiced by David Thewlis), an L.A.-based customer service expert who has developed a small celebrity following. But with advice like “smile more,” Michael knows that he is a hack and that this gravy train will soon run out. His book tour has brought him to Cincinnati, and here, Michael will have his mid-life and his existential crisis all wrapped into one.
The people that Michael meets can sense that something is amiss. They calmly suggest that he see the zoo or maybe try the chili, but Michael isn’t interested in the zoo or the chili. Michael’s world has gone quiet and gray, and it has driven him deep into his psyche. So deep that there is him and there is everyone else, and everyone that Michael meets—male or female, young or old—is voiced by Tom Noonan.
Michael’s Fregoli Delusion—the belief that different people are a single person in disguise—is cracked open when he happens upon Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), the only unique voice Michael can hear in a cacophony of blandness. This anomaly gives Michael hope, but his crisis of personality is far from over.
Kaufman’s mark appears, and true to form, it is painfully awkward, embarrassing, and downright terrifying. Like his previous films, Kaufman is not the type to find satisfaction in the obvious. Behind every corner and every good intention, there is a conspiracy lying in wait. The dreadful truth of it: he is often right.
That alone would be enough to make Anomalisa a Charlie Kaufman film, but this goes one step further. To tell this story, Kaufman enlisted the work of Duke Johnson—who shares directing credit—for a movie entirely comprised of stop-motion animation. The results are as magnificent as they are human.
But Anomalisa is not for everyone. When the movie played at this past November’s Denver Film Festival, a generous amount of nervous tittering crept through the crowd during Anomalisa’s central sex scene. Twittering that continued into the lobby and well into the after-party. Maybe the animation put them off, maybe they were caught off guard by the tenderness of it, or maybe they simply weren’t prepared to see their own neuroses, wants, and desires laid naked quite like that. Sometimes looking in the mirror can be a startling revelation.
Directed by Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman
Written by Charlie Kaufman
Produced by Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman, Dino Stamatopoulos, Rosa Tran
Vocal performances by David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan
Paramount Animation, Rated R, Running time 90 minutes, Premiered Sept. 4, 2015 at the Telluride Film Festival
The above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 23, No. 22, “Ghost in the machine.”
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