The films of writer Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) often defy simple explanation, with plots that are so high concept that we mere mortals can sometimes only scratch the surface of the themes at play (or are suckers for the author’s pretentions, depending on your point of view). Anomalisa, Kaufman’s second directorial effort, is deceptively different, with a premise that is quite simple to explain yet executed in such a way as to still convey a staggering amount of depth, a feat in and of itself considering the film is entirely animated with stop-motion puppetry.
Protagonist Michael Stone (David Thewlis) lands in Cincinnati on a business trip, burdened by the mundanity of his life. Everyone around him has the same face and speaks with the same voice (Tom Noonan), whether it be his wife, his son, the hotel clerk, an ex-lover, everyone. That is, until he hears the voice of someone new, a fellow conference attendee named Lisa (Jennifer Jason-Leigh) who is completely and utterly unique in Michael’s eyes. Michael begins to pursue a relationship with Lisa, whose shyness and self-consciousness act as barriers to anyone getting close to her.
As ridiculous as this sounds, the puppetry really adds a layer of surreal humanity to the proceedings at play. This is partially due to Kaufman’s unique sense of absurdist comedic timing, but that’s not nearly the whole picture. Animator Duke Johnson (who also did stop-motion work on TV’s Community) is able to convey a striking level of realism through his creations, whether it be in the subtle ways arms and legs move unconsciously, the way people do or don’t non-verbally engage when talking with each other, or even the physical act of sex, portrayed here without the glamour of Hollywood-standard bodies nor the accompanying non-verbal consent to give one of the most strikingly realistic portrayals of sex ever filmed, no less beautiful because of its artificial nature.
Thematically, though, this film is going to throw a lot of people for a loop, not least of all the ones fed up with Tom Noonan’s voice coming out of nearly every character and animated portrayals of sexuality. There’s a pretty big allusion to the Fregoli delusion, a psychological disorder wherein one believes that everyone around you is actually one person in disguise, which would seem to portray Michael as a tragic figure suffering from mental illness. However, because the film never comes outright and says that Michael has this delusion, it might be more appropriate not to view this as a character study but as a commentary on the individual in relation to the world around them. There’s a lot of ambiguity in the film’s interpretation that I’m not entirely sure was intentional, but I will wholly admit that the mystery could be the entire point, to cause the film to linger with you long after the credits roll. The ambiguity over whether there is supposed to be ambiguity is bothersome to me, but it likely won't trouble anyone enough to wholly detract from the experience.
Still, Anomalisa is a fantastic addition to Charlie Kaufman’s filmography, the kind of bizarre, mind-bending artistry we’ve come to expect from one of Hollywood’s most unique auteurs. I don’t think it quite rises to the classic level of some of the films he only wrote and didn’t direct, but this is a film that will deserve to be seen even if you don’t find a showing in its inevitably niche theatrical run. You’ll be surprised just how real these human pieces of plastic can be.