Back in the day, a feature cartoon adapted from R. Crumb’s randy comic Fritz the Cat bore the tagline: “He’s X-rated—and animated!” The publicity is not quite so sensational for the new stop-motion animated feature. Anomalisa. The themes are just as adult in nature, and the storyline remarkably frank, but the handling of the material is more muted, and yet even more surreal.
And we’d expect no less from the latest experiment in cinematic arts and craft from the febrile imagination of scriptwriter-turned-director Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Remember, in the Kaufman-scripted Being John Malkovich, when the hapless protagonist attempts to stage the tragedy of Abélard and Heloise as a puppet show? In Anomalisa, Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson grapple with the malaise of modern humanity—the emptiness and alienation we’ve all felt sometimes—using stop-motion puppets. It’s a brilliant idea, in concept, and the choices made by the filmmakers to spin their yarn are often wildly inventive. Still, for all its deeply human themes, the story never quite touches the heart.
Front and center is Michael Stone (voice of David Thewlis), a middle-aged self-help guru who can’t seem to help himself. As he flies to Cincinnati to deliver a speech at a conference for customer service workers, he reflects on how his life has gone stale. He feels disconnected from his wife and son and his work. He’s haunted by visions of a vitriolic ex-girlfriend he walked out on for no apparent reason.
To express the boring sameness of Michael’s everyday life, the filmmakers cleverly have one actor (the versatile Tom Noonan) providing voices for everyone else he encounters—male or female, adult or child. (The character puppets all have pretty much the same faces too, although the women have longer hair.)
Until Michael meets Lisa, a conference attendee. Her voice—warm, funny, girlish at times—is done by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Michael nicknames her “Anomalisa” because her individuality is so unexpected. He can’t articulate why he finds mousy Lisa so special, but who can explain the mysteries of love and attraction? In the film’s most persuasive scene, they go to bed, with all the awkwardness, humor, and tenderness of a real-life encounter.
That the bloom is destined to fade on their sweet romance becomes the core of the story. Gradually, we begin to see Michael not as the Everyman hero alienated by a mundane society, but as the architect of his own misery.
There are some truly marvelous moments. When Michael turns on the TV, the filmmakers lovingly recreate a scene from the classic ’30s screwball comedy, My Man Godfrey—in black-and-white—with Noonan (of course) supplying voices for both William Powell and Carole Lombard. A dream sequence is done with plenty of wicked panache. And it’s distressing when Lisa starts to lose her specialness in Michael’s eyes; it’s not that she’s doing anything differently, but that he’s incapable of maintaining interest in anyone long enough to break through his own funk.
Other sections don’t come off as well. Things begin slowly—Michael on the plane, in the airport, riding to the hotel with a chatty cabbie, wandering around his room—a suite of scenes no less tedious for being staged with puppets. There’s also an odd thread involving a mechanical Japanese sex toy. It’s weird that Michael would buy this item for his little boy, although it does convey how out of step he is with the world and his own loved ones.
With all of the accolades this movie has received (check out the poster on the way in, where words like “masterpiece,” “transcendent” and “perfect” are flung about), I was expecting to be blown away by the film as a technical marvel, but also to experience something emotionally profound. That didn’t quite happen for me, and so I was disappointed. (Which is exactly why you should never read reviews before you see a movie, folks.) As admirable as Anomalisa is in so many ways, by the end, I wanted to be more moved.
**1/2 (out of four)
With the voices of Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan and David Thewlis. Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson. A Paramount release. Rated R. 90 minutes.