“Anomalisa” is a stop-motion animated film from Charlie Kaufman, and this is certainly another odd, fascinating work from a talented writer/director who wrote the screenplays for “Being John Malkovich” (1999), “Adaptation.” (2002), “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004), and his directorial debut work “Synecdoche, New York” (2008). Again, he looks into matters of human mind through an offbeat approach full of surprises and amusements, and the result is a unique work which is funny, insightful, and touching in its whimsical mix of melancholy, humor, and romance.
Its hero Michael (voiced by David Thewlis) is a self-help book author who is going to Cincinnati, Ohio for his book promotion at a hotel customer convention when we meet him during the opening scene. He has been lonely, desperate, and frustrated while feeling distant from others around him including his own family, and we soon notice this depressed guy’s warped state of mind right from the beginning. Everyone around him looks all the same while speaking in the same voice provided by Tom Noonan, and that reminds me of that famous scene in “Being John Malkovich”, where John Malkovich himself enters his own mind and sees a world literally full of Malkoviches.
While lodging at a hotel where the convention is being held, Michael prepares for his speech for the next day in his comfortable hotel room, but he comes to think more about his old girlfriend living in Cincinnati. Their breakup was unpleasant to say the least as reflected her old letter sent to him during that time, but now he wonders whether he can reconnect with her. He eventually calls her, so she comes into the hotel bar for meeting him, but that turns out to be disastrous to his dismay.
But then he comes across an unexpected chance when he returns to his room and takes a shower. He happens to hear a voice which seems to come from one of the other rooms on the same floor, and he is attracted to the voice because it sounds different from those many identical ones around him. He immediately searches for the source, and that is how he comes to meet Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), a woman who is attending the convention along with her friend. She somehow looks different from others in his view, so Michael suggests that she and her friend should go down to the bar along with him, and he gets to know a little more about Lisa while spending time with them at the bar.
This is basically a conventional setup for romance tale, but the movie is imbued with quirky sensibility to entertain us, and Kaufman and his co-director Duke Johnson did a superlative job of making their characters on the screen look real and believable through skillful stop-motion animation. The body movements of the characters in the film are smooth and fluid without any awkwardness, and their presentation of emotions are conveyed well to us although they are still somewhere around the Uncanny Valley. We often notice their artificial quality, but that aspect somehow fits with the surreal atmosphere in the film, and Kaufman and Johnson often push that aspect to nice comic effects for our amusement. For instance, the movie does not flinch from nudity at all, you will see very clearly that the movie is rated R for good reasons.
The movie is also sincere and serious about its hero’s emotional matters. In objective view, Michael is no more than a miserable loser attempting an extramarital affair, but we come to understand his need and desperation as he clumsily approaches to Lisa. In case of Lisa, this shy woman is happy to receive the unexpected attention from a stranger, and we sense the mutual feeling growing between her and Michael as they talk more and more with each other.
In the end, they come to have their own private time in Michael’s room, and they eventually move onto the next logical step as being more comfortable with each other on the bed. I will not go into details, but I can tell you that Kaufman and Johnson find an effective way to present this rather graphic scene without looking silly or gratuitous. Accompanied with Carter Burwell’s restrained but sensitive score, it feels warm, tender, and intimate as two characters tentatively try to get closer to each other, and it also manages to sidestep the Uncanny Valley successfully and tastefully while letting us gradually involved in what is being exchanged between them.
It also helps that David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh click well with each other in their voice performance. Thewlis is excellent as a sad man struggling with his deep emotional problems, and Leigh, who is far softer than her nasty Oscar-nominated turn in “The Hateful Eight” (2015), complements her co-star well with her gentle performance. Noonan, who drew my attention for the first time through his crucial supporting turn in “Synecdoche, New York”, has lots of fun with handling the rest of the characters in the film, and his flat, monotonous voice further accentuates the drab environment encompassing Michael and Lisa with great effects.
While less dense and cerebral compared to Kaufman’s previous works, “Anomalisa”, which deservedly received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature Film, is mostly successful in its bold storytelling experiment despite its few flaws including its overlong third act. It is definitely weird, but it ultimately looks into human matters we can empathize with, and it eventually illuminates a few important things about human relationship.
While watching the movie, I was reminded of that good advice on relationship which is given to the young heroine of “Juno” (2007) by her no-nonsense father: “Look, in my opinion, the best thing you can do is find a person who loves you for exactly what you are. Good mood, bad mood, ugly, pretty, handsome, what have you, the right person is still going to think the sun shines out your ass. That’s the kind of person that’s worth sticking with.” I think Kaufman would wholeheartedly agree to that.
Sidenote: The movie is based on the play of the same name which was written by Kaufman under the pseudonym Francis Fregoli. His pseudonym came from the Fregoli disorder, a rare mental disorder in which, according to the Wikipedia, “a person holds a delusional belief that different people are in fact a single person who changes appearance or is in disguise.”