When writer-director Charlie Kaufman is involved in a film, the results are guaranteed to be weird. Not just everyday weird, but unique, one-of-a-kind weird. A partial list of his films includes Being Jack Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and his first film as director, Synechdoche, New York. They are all mind-bending puzzles, often comedic, that cover curiously abstract topics—subjectivity, emotionl memory, the nature of thought itself. Yet they are all grounded in the experience of human beings and their relationships.
He has now written, and co-directed with animator Duke Johnson, a new film called Anomalisa. Instead of the large canvas employed in his earlier work, Kaufman has drastically narrowed things down. This is an animated movie, shot with puppets whose faces have been created by 3-D printing. Instead of erasing the lines that separate the faces from the bodies at the foreheads and jaw lines of these puppets, Kaufman and Johnson have left them in, emphasizing their nature as puppets.
The main character, Michael Stone, is an author who writes motivational books about customer service. He’s in Cincinnati for a day, speaking at a conference. A smoker in late middle-age who is obviously weary and depressed, Stone takes a room at a local hotel, and then on an impulse calls up an old flame to reconnect. They meet at the hotel restaurant, and it does not go well.
Now, besides this main thread at the beginning of the film, a lot of mundane details are covered, in what almost seems like real time. There are conversations with a cab driver, the hotel clerk, the bellboy, a conversation by phone with his wife—and somehow, through all this, there is a mounting sense of anxiety, perhaps the film’s signature emotion. We notice pretty quickly that every voice of every puppet except Michael, is the same—the same bland, colorless voice, clearly male but issuing from the mouths of men and women. This eerie detail goes unremarked, until Michael happens to meet one of the people attending the conference who is staying at the hotel, Lisa—a customer service clerk at an Ohio food company who loves his books and looks at him with unabashed admiration. She is the only other character with a different voice, and this is the trait that attracts him, or to put it another way, it’s symbolic, of something Michael is seeking. She’s not very educated, and has crushing low self-esteem, but he discovers that he has fallen in love with her.
Michael Stone is voiced by David Thewlis, Lisa by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who is perfect; and Tom Noonan is the voice of everyone else. The name of the picture comes from Lisa’s comment that she is an anomaly, to which Michael comes up with the nickname “Anomalisa.” The picture has a certain surreal humor to it. Ultimately, though, it’s just incredibly sad and unsettling. There is a full sex scene with puppets, and it’s not played for laughs. The device of having everyone else besides these two characters have the same voice is not just some gimmick, either. It has a point, one which becomes central to the film’s meaning. Anomalisa’s portrait of loneliness and the search for connection is more moving precisely because it’s enacted by puppets. Who, we wonder, could be pulling the strings?