Anomalisa, Charlie Kaufman’s Depressive Stop-Motion Odyssey
By Jesse Hassenger
Directed by Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman
Opens December 30
The first movie written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, Synecdoche, New York, went big, in its depressive indie way, attempting to contain the vastness of life in the sets-within-sets of a labyrinthine play that becomes its author’s confounding life work. His follow-up Anomalisa, being a stop-motion animated film (co-directed by Duke Johnson), is equally painstaking, but simpler: it is adapted from an actual play he wrote, something I did not know going in but felt in the bones of the project, which features, basically, two characters, plus some bit parts categorized as “everyone else.” It’s not that Michael Stone (David Thewlis), author of a book on customer service, and Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) are the only two people in the movie; that could be a metaphor for the way they fall, if not in love, certainly into bed on their first night together. But Michael and Lisa are not exactly in love, and they’re not exactly alone. There are other people at the hotel where Michael and Lisa meet, including Lisa’s friend (they’ve traveled here to see a speech Michael is giving there), a staffer who calls Michael into his office, and an ex who Michael calls up when he lands in town. All of these characters are voiced by character actor Tom Noonan, and not in a man-of-a-thousand voices way. The characters don’t exactly sound identical, but having the same subdued tone turns them into a unified aural other, like white noise.
It’s a clever idea, and clearer in its cleverness than a lot of Synecdoche. In a lot of ways, Anomalisa feels like a distillation of Kaufman; that it’s acted out by beautifully expressive stop-motion puppets brings to mind John Cusack’s theatrical ambitions in Being John Malkovich. Like other Kaufman heroes, Michael is soft-spoken and fumbling in matters of the heart. He makes an immediate, almost unexplainable connection with Lisa—though he’s also married with kids—and they spend a strange night together that nearly convinces him to completely change his life. The Lisa character veers far away from the kind of Manic Pixie Dream Girl that’s supposed to change a character’s life in one night; she’s hesitant, wallflowery, and dorkily starstruck by Michael the customer-service guru (people keep telling him his words have improved their productivity “by 90%”). She’s also right on the edge of condescension; she’s supposed to be so sheltered that she doesn’t know that hotels turn down beds every day. But Leigh carries Lisa through, not least when she sings a plaintive round of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” Her puppet avatar shares a sex scene with Thewlis’s that’s remarkably well-acted by both the voice actors and the stop-motion creations on screen.
Despite the nuances of the animation, the quasi-two-hander quality of Anomalisa sometimes makes it feel slightly stagebound. It has a little of Kaufman’s expert, elaborate stacking of weird metaphysical tricks and relatable emotions, but not nearly as much as his most celebrated pictures. Rather than the constant buzzing of depression in Synecdoche, this film uses an extended actual nightmare sequence; it’s less oppressive (and probably more rewatchable) but less impressive, somehow. What is impressive, however, is the way that Kaufman and Johnson have put together the second animated movie this year to so elegantly express the potentially abstract business of human emotions. Call it Outside In.