I’ve never really thought of Charlie Kaufman as an artist who pours his heart out on the page. His films certainly pack an emotional punch when need be, but his conceptual brilliance sometimes obfuscates the fact that all of his films are about a fundamental inability to connect. The protagonists of Charlie Kaufman films are often prisoners, if not of their own genius, of their own minds, but the slippery po-mo brilliance of things like Synecdoche, New York or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind sort of clouded the fact that they were actually meant to be Kaufman (this is more obvious in Adaptation, where Nicolas Cage literally played Charlie Kaufman). This tardy realization makes Kaufman’s latest directorial effort (co-directed with Duke Johnson) both incredibly touching and an uncomfortable bit of self-insertion — no mean feat, considering the formal elements at play here.
Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) is an author of a popular customer-service self-help book who travels from his home in Los Angeles to Cincinnati to give a conference. Married with a child (Tom Noonan), Michael is nevertheless consumed by the memory of Bella (Tom Noonan), a woman living in Cincinnati who he walked out on 11 years prior. He makes plans to meet with Bella that go terribly awry until he drunkenly overhears a voice he can’t shake. Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a shy customer-service operator who has also travelled to Cincinnati with her buxom friend Emily (Tom Noonan — I’ll explain in a second) to attend Michael’s conference. Michael becomes taken with this woman like he never has before — in spite of her own assertion that she’s nothing special.
Never one to keep things uncomplicated, Kaufman (and co-conspirator Johnson) tell the story through stop-motion puppetry that can best be summed up as “arthouse Thunderbirds.” Every character besides Lisa and Michael is voiced by Tom Noonan, who essentially affects the same flat mid-Atlantic accent for every character, be they a waiter, a small child or a cab driver. (They also more or less all have the same generic faces, whereas Lisa and Michael’s faces are more detailed.) The result is both extremely intimate and slightly trippy in a way that perhaps recalls Soderbergh’s Schizopolis or even Pascale Ferran’s Bird People.
The first half-hour of Anomalisa essentially unfolds in real time, delicately creating a world where the almost complete lack of facial expression and the blocky movements of the characters nevertheless convey a surprising amount of humanity. (The puppets may have blocky movements but under their tiny puppet clothes hide surprisingly realistic rubber bodies, as revealed in the film’s much-discussed “explicit” sex scene.) The limited visual movement heightens the vocal performances of Thewlis and especially Leigh, on whose shoulders the entire success of the film rests. She’s meant to stand out above all else and her lively, lived-in performance manages to do just that.
I hesitate to say too much more about Anomalisa. While I doubt that I would be subjected to the fury of the masses that fiercely protected Star Wars (in fact, the film is rather unspoilable), it’s best experienced cold. Walking out of the film, I had the curious feeling that I just sat through Charlie Kaufman’s own pity party, where the audience is meant to sympathize with a (white, rich, middle-aged) guy who literally cannot relate to anyone else in the world and is ready to change his life at a moment’s notice for a glimpse of the opposite. Upon further reflection, there’s way more going on in Anomalisa than an admittedly brilliant writer and filmmaker throwing himself a Special Snowflake Shindig for one. It’s a touching, bizarre, emotional and human story that’s both completely eccentric and yet impossible to pull off otherwise. ■
Anomalisa opens in theatres on Friday, Jan. 15. Watch the trailer here: