In his debut screenplay, Charlie Kaufman told the story of a puppeteer who turns John Malkovich into his own human puppet. In Anomalisa, Kaufman tells the story of a man who feels like he’s trapped in a world full of lifeless puppets. As a matter of fact, all the characters in the film are indeed stop motion puppets. Given what an inventive filmmaker Kaufman is, it’s surprising that it’s taken this long for him to direct an animated feature. He puts the medium to impeccable use in Anomalisa, a film that manages to be whimsical while also being subdued.
Based on a play Kaufman wrote under a suitor name, co-directed by Duke Johnson, and funded through Kickstarter, the film follows an author named Michael Stone (David Thewlis). Michael finds that he has trouble relating to his wife, his son, an old fling, a taxi driver, and virtually anybody he encounters. In his mind, every person is exactly the same and they all blend into each other as one. That’s why Tom Noonan voices every other character Michael encounters. Well, almost every other character that is.
On a business trip to discuss customer service, Michael comes across a woman named Lisa, voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Although she appears plain, Michael sees and hears something in her that nobody else can. For the first time in a long time, he makes a connection with another person. Thewlis and Leigh give pitch perfect performances, turning a couple of characters with 3D printed faces into ones which are hauntingly human. After one night together, Michael is ready to give up everything to be with the girl of his dreams. Is this really true love, though, or is Michael just on a vacation high in the midst of a midlife crisis? Much of the film plays like a more downbeat companion piece to Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, eventually arriving at a fitting final destination.
Like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, and Kaufman’s other works, Anomalisa is largely about isolation, failure, insecurity, and the seemingly hopeless venture to find happiness. It’s amazing how Kaufman frequently touches base on similar themes, but always brings a completely original vision to the table. Anomalisa is no exception. This is another sad, strange, darkly funny, and flat-out beautiful triumph of imagination. Although it often appears bleak and dull, there’s always something extraordinary going on underneath the surface. It’s also one of the most multi-layered moviegoing experiences you’ll have all year.
There are many different ways to interpret Michael Stone’s story. On the one hand, you can say that it’s a story about a man trying to find his soul mate. On the other hand, you could argue it’s about an egomaniac with increasingly high standards and is ultimately impossible to please. You could also view Michael as a man who is simply losing his mind, falling apart in a labyrinth of insanity and loneliness. However you interpret the film, though, nobody can deny that it’s a one of a kind anomaly.