It’s not immediately clear why Anomalisa, Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s sophomore directorial outing, is animated.
In fact, about an hour in — after becoming acclimated to the puppeteered characters and sculpted environments — you might even forget that the stop-motion film isn't just another one of Kaufman's manic, inventive live-action works.
At times, it seems like the film's aesthetic subtlety and its level of nigh-uncanny immersion is the point. Anomalisa unfolds over just one revelatory night in the otherwise mundane life of motivational speaker Michael Stone, who's in Cincinnati as the keynote speaker at a customer service conference. The slow, deliberate pacing of the opening aptly sets the stage for this not-especially-exciting premise; we watch Michael amble slowly to his hotel room, fumble with the keycard, check in with his family back home and weigh his few options for nighttime activities.
It all sounds like the stuff we tend to go to movies to avoid, but it's tempered at first by the unique method of its manufacture. Michael and his puppet co-stars, however, are designed in such a way as to not distract the viewer from the at-first understated foreground; instead, the animation is a reverse abstraction, emblematic of Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson's complete, theatrical control over every lackluster element in this man's depressingly dull world.
Because that's what Michael Stone is: He's depressed, painfully so. He let the one true love of his life go, and an attempt to reconcile with her goes ... well, "badly" might be an understatement. Michael might have found success in the customer service rep world, but his striking anhedonia is a pervasive affliction, one that trickles down into the unobtrusive art style.
But like the best tales of human drama, the film inevitably escalates. In true Kaufman fashion, the heights it reaches are, if not dizzying, unforeseen. It might take awhile to catch the film's most eccentric, striking feature, but once you do, everything starts to make more — and, at the same time, less — sense.
Not only does Michael's depression affect his worldview, coloring his life in with a gray palette, but it has transformed how he sees every single person around him. All of the people in his life, from his loved ones to those he's just met, are exactly the same. Literally.
It takes a second to catch its strangest feature
Every single person he meets has the exact same voice — that of an adult male, which is most obviously incongruent when Michael is talking to his wife and young son. But something the animation does well in service of the reveal is masking the fact that everyone not only sounds the same, but looks identical to each other, too. The puppetry allows for the easy recapitulation of Michael's devastating solitude, as the models are reused over and over for all of the background and side characters.
Well, all of them save for one: the titular Anomalisa. Lisa, as that is her actual name, is staying in the same hotel for the conference, and is an excited fan of Michael's. The way the pair meet is purely vocally-driven, and the emphasis on the auditory is a relic from Anomalisa's origins as a stage-set audio play. Michael hears Lisa's unique voice and is immediately smitten.
It's not immediately clear why Lisa, the scarred, shy and self-deprecating service rep, is the Eve to Michael's Adam, the one other truly human person in this bizarre world. But it doesn't matter, not really, because Lisa proves herself to be a captivating character, a sheer force of personality even if Michael is mostly just drawn to her voice.
A deft combination of stop-motion and madness
The humanity inherent in Lisa's portrayal belies her puppet nature, just as the rest of the film strives to, but actress Jennifer Jason Leigh lends so much presence to the character — through her distinct quirks, her compelling three-dimensionality — that even if she were a six-foot-tall rabbit, she would be believable and extraordinary.
The deft combination of stop-motion and Kaufman's Being John Malkovich- or Synecdoche, New York-esque madness, which reveals itself as the film intensifies and becomes much, much stranger in its second half, has co-director Johnson and studio Starburns Industries to thank. Starburns is best-known as the producer of Adult Swim's Moral Orel, which shares a lot in common with Anomalisa, in terms of using the abstract method of puppetry to convey a dark, intimate story. (Dan Harmon, who Starburns' Dino Stamatopoulos worked with on Community, serves as an executive producer; Johnson direct that show's one-off stop-motion episode.)
While the stop-motion does well to illustrate the subtleties of the narrative, an animation fan might wish that the film had taken that element further. It's a unique, underrepresented medium, after all, one that is consistently marginalized by the mainstream when it comes to playing in awards circuits or even in theaters. It's especially hard if the names "Disney" or "Pixar" aren't slapped on the brightly colored poster. Anomalisa is an adult film, and a triumphant one, but it exemplifies the dramatic potentialities of a medium that can also do much, much more.
Anomalisa, as is, stands out as one of the year's best, a remarkably human film with a heart as big as its story is small; yet a version of the film that more proudly wears its medium on its sleeve is one that the animation world can only dream of.