One of the most tellingly depressing things about the stop-motion world of Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa is that Michael Stone (David Thewlis), the protagonist, is a world-famous superstar for his contributions to the customer service industry. Very few films have explored the brutality of banality like this one, and it’s frankly frightening to see it so accurately portrayed on screen. Only the second directorial effort by Kaufman, co-directing with experienced animator Duke Johnson, it’s probably his most accessible concept as a writer. That does not make Anomalisa an easy film, nor does it mean that Kaufman’s characteristic genius conceits are left behind. With all but two characters voiced by Tom Noonan (who gets the impressive credit of Everyone Else, including women, children, and singers), the mundane coexists fascinatingly with the sharply surreal.
Thewlis’ voice is the only non-Noonan one we hear for the first ‘act’ of Anomalisa (this isn’t a film that’s particularly concerned with plot). His Michael Stone is also by far the most detailed figure. All the models share the same, smooth face except Michael. He’s more sunken and weathered, and incredibly expressive. The amount of emotion that is expressed by just his eyes is a staggering feat, as are his incredible movements. At points slightly stilted like conventional stop-motion characters, but smoothly natural and human at others, it’s safe to say that I’ve never seen anything like Anomalisa.
Michael’s world is turned upside down when he hears another anomalous non-Noonan voice in the hotel, that of Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Staying in the Fregoli hotel in Cincinnati for a conference, Michael hears Lisa as she walks past his room, briefly revitalising him. She’s in Cincinnati just to hear Michael speak at the conference, so the ice is broken pretty easily, and, after an evening of cocktails, they end up having sex in a scene that would make Team America blush. This sequence is played entirely straight, romantic but not idealised, and the realism of the bodies involved makes the hard-R MPAA rating easily understandable.
Both Thewlis and Leigh turn in astounding voice work here, the natural breaths, pauses, and coughs of conversation left in. Noonan’s calm, but unsettlingly unfeeling cadence further highlights just how much feeling is behind the words shared between Michael and Lisa. Some of Noonan’s characters – Michael’s ex-girlfriend Bella, and Lisa’s friend Emily – actually have something to say, but most of them are just oppressively mundane. Taxi drivers, hotel concierges, fellow passengers on a plane, they all fail to make any sort of conversation, instead holding Michael verbally hostage with small-talk and useless advice. He can’t give any replies other than ‘yes’ or ‘thanks’, and it seems as if that’s all anyone actually wants. It’s a bleakly sterile world, but that doesn’t stop Anomalisa from also being absurdly funny. From an accidental visit to a sex shop to some throwaway background visual gags, the laughs not only keep the film from becoming a grim ordeal, but serve to make the moments of poignancy all the more powerful.
As is to be expected from Kaufman, the great questions of the human condition are approached from a unique angle. What love is and if such a dramatic feeling can survive the boredom of day-to-day existence is Anomalisa’s main concern, and the ambiguous ending allows the audience to decide on their own answer, and then decide if that answer is happy or sad. Exactly what is wrong with Michael, and a speech he gives towards the end makes it clear that there is a whole lot, is also left up to the viewer to fully decide. Is the world really populated by empty automaton people, is he suffering from the delusion that gives the Fregoli hotel its name (a psychosis that makes you believe you’re the planet’s only individual), or is he just a man whose mind is warped by a colossal amount of self-regard?
The pacing is flawless, packing in philosophy, comedy, and devastating character beats into a modest 90 minute runtime. Tension ratchets up effectively as a result – we feel as frantic as Michael does when he first searches for Lisa or horribly messes up a reunion. Only around 24 hours pass in the story, and the majority of it is contained within the confines of the hotel, not quite claustrophobic, but still neutral enough to feel of a piece with the anodyne universe which Michael inhabits. It also means the surrealist tangents feel far more bizarre than they would in a more obviously cinematic setting.
The ending arrives unexpectedly suddenly, but is profoundly moving all the same – it can be read multiple ways, but even the most positive perception is going to have a depressing element. Anomalisa, as any piece of art tackling the sort of questions it considers should be, has a very real darkness at its core, but manages to mix this with hope and a biting sense of humour. Despite being Kaufman’s most accessible work, this is still a film that sees it as important to really challenge its audience, and will haunt you for a long time after leaving the cinema.