Many years ago, I watched Being John Malkovich, a film in which an out-of-work puppeteer finds a door leading into the mind of the eponymous actor – something that could surely only originate from the bizarre mind of Charlie Kaufman, a man who knows how to employ the completely surreal and use it to explore the far-too real. His latest film, a stop-motion animation called Anomalisa, shows Kaufman at his best, it proving to be a moving picture that looks at love and loneliness with dark humour and touching poignancy.
Michael Stone (David Thewlis) is an inspirational speaker and a customer service expert who is lonely, crippled by the mundanity of his life and his inability to connect with other people, seeing everybody as identical white men with the same voice (Tom Noonan). One night, in a hotel room following a routine business trip to Cincinnati, he hears a unique female voice (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and finds that he feels a connection with her that shakes up his mundane existence.
Anomalisa is a bizarre and quirky film that also manages to be incredibly human – it is often said that animation is the best genre for exploring the real and the human, and this film has a lot more heart and soul than a lot of live-action movies. The animation here is very good-looking, and I think the medium was very much the best way to realise this story – it forces more of a focus onto sound, and highlights Michael’s condition (in case you are unaware, the Fregoli delusion is a belief that different people are in fact the same person in disguise).
David Thewlis brings an incredible world-weariness to his performance, and helps imbue Michael with a fantastic level of complexity – he is a man for whom we sympathise, but have no illusions about his being a good person. He is a multi-layered character and, as such, is also an incredibly real one. Michael is most definitely an anti-hero, but that is because he is exactly like a real person.
Similarly, Leigh brings to Lisa a vulnerability – the plot really comes alive when Lisa enters the film, bringing with it liveliness that also renders her completely real (the quality of the puppetry here in conveying her body language and those little expressions is top-notch). Leigh’s voice helps lift the spirit of the piece – it oozes feeling, and that it enlivens Michael in a world of Noonans is not at all surprising (for it also enlivens us). She is a tragic heroine – from the moment she sings a heart-breaking rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, she brings tears to the viewer’s eyes.
Kaufman has a gift for examining the ideas of quotidian horror, and this film explores it in painstaking real detail, and the film often toes the line between darkly, sourly humorous and dark. It has funny and poignant touches (it possesses the year’s most delicate and touching sex scene, for example), but it is at its heart a horrifying film about the sheer brutal misery and mundanity that comes from real life. This is not a world that seems to indicate a happy ending, and the way Michael’s misery is compounded is particularly shattering.
There is an overwhelming air of misery haunting the picture, and aspects of the film are massively bleak (although you could argue that that helps play to its strengths) – for some viewers, the depressing eeriness of Michael’s world will be too real and make for a very upsetting experience. Anomalisa toes the line between incredibly impersonal and deeply resonant, making you root for a happiness that is never going to come. This film is compelling due to how immersive it is, and due to the human tale it offers, and it is proof than Kaufman’s surreal way of looking at the world continues to be one of the best at truly showing it as it is.
Director: Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman
Cast: David Thewlis (Michael Stone), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Lisa Hesselman), Tom Noonan (Everyone else)
Running Time: 90 Mins