Curious, moving, and brilliantly imagined, Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa is at once the least flagrantly surreal and the most formally ambitious film he has yet made. It’s an animated film, for one thing: the detailed, realistic human figures appear to have been molded out of wire, cardboard, and felt, and they move with lifelike precision. (The film’s co-director, Duke Johnson, is a veteran of several stop-motion shorts, most of them created for the Adult Swim series Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole.) The scope of Anomalisa’s plot, meanwhile, feels almost modest. Michael Stone, a disgruntled corporate guru who has literally written the book on customer service (How Can I Help You Help Them?), arrives in Cincinnati for a business conference, checks into his hotel, and finds himself overwhelmed with loneliness. After an unsuccessful attempt to re-connect with an ex-girlfriend, he is gripped by the sound of a female voice from down the hotel corridor. The voice belongs to Lisa, a mousy customer-service associate in town to attend the same conference at which Michael is scheduled to speak.
Over the course of a single evening, Michael and Lisa form a halting but tender connection. He is trapped in a loveless marriage and suffers from depression; she hasn’t been in a relationship for eight years and uses her hair to hide a facial scar. Thus unfolds one of the oddest and loveliest seductions in recent cinema—odd not only because we’re seeing it played out with puppets but also because it’s kicked off by an unexpectedly sad and funny rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want To Have Fun.” In the cold light of the morning after, however, the spell is broken, and Michael and Lisa appear doomed to return to lives of quiet desperation.
Anomalisa is so cleverly conceived and so beautifully mounted that not until it’s over do we realize just how simple a story it tells. Two lonely strangers cross paths, have a one-night stand, and go their separate ways, unlikely to meet again. Kaufman’s screenplay isn’t governed by the mind-bending dream-logic that governed earlier films like Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Instead, he sets the film in a real world that nevertheless feels uncanny, defamiliarized. Kaufman emphasizes Michael’s depression and loneliness by having every other person he encounters—with the exception of Lisa—speak in the same flat-toned voice (supplied by actor Tom Noonan). In this and other subtle ways, the world of Anomalisa feels ever so slightly off-beat. We’re almost made to wonder if the film is set at some point in the near future, until it’s revealed that it actually takes place in the recent past, during the second Bush administration.
The voice acting here is as superb as the stop-motion effects. As played by the great British character actor David Thewlis, Michael comes off as gentle, absurd, slightly pathetic, even a little slimy. As played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Lisa is both painfully ordinary and strangely radiant; we’re made to see in her the beauty that Michael sees as well as the plainness that comes to overtake his vision of her. In Anomalisa, Kaufman and Johnson don’t need to create another world to find that weird beauty—they uncover it here in our own.