Directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson
Written by Charlie Kaufman from his play
Starring David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tom Noonan
Runtime: 90 minutes
Charlie Kaufman had written some of the best films of the last 20 years starting with Being John Malkovich in 1999 and continuing with Adaptation in 2002 and Eternal Shine of the Spotless Mind in 2004 before making his directorial debut from his own screenplay Synecdoche, New York, which Roger Ebert dubbed the best film of the 2000s (2000-2009). His writing/directing follow-up is Anomalisa, a stop-motion animated film that is most certainly not for children that may end up as one of the best films from 2010-2019.
David Thewlis lends his voice to Michael, a customer service productivity specialist who is on a speaking engagement in Cincinnati, Ohio in support or as a result of his book on the topic. Michael suffers from Fregoli Delusion, a condition that makes him view every other person as the same person (his hotel is cleverly called The Fregoli). This is why Tom Noonan is billed as voicing ‘everyone else’ as he is the voice Michael hears when anyone speaks to him, except Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Michael is severely depressed, which is either causing his disorder or his disorder is causing his depression. He’s lost sense and purpose in his life and because he has lost the ability to distinguish individuals, he’s lost the ability to tolerate anyone he speaks to. When he chances to hear Lisa in the hotel hallway, he’s overcome with joy and seeks her out. He asks she and her friend to drinks, and they are more than obliging considering they drove several hours to hear him speak the next day. Michael encourages Lisa to speak because her voice is unique to him and therefore enrapturing. Lisa doesn’t think much of herself and is confused yet flattered by the attention.
So plagued is Michael by his disorder that he is willing to make brash and reckless decisions just because he has finally perceived another unique individual. He finally has hope and feels like he can be a person again because of his personal discovery.
Kaufman does a brilliant thing in not affixing a superficial plot onto the film, but making it a very unique character study. He structured the film around Michael’s increasing desperation to hear a unique voice and the tenuousness of that uniqueness in the light of his delusion. He makes Michael’s struggle real and wholly relatable. His script is genuine and even loving (in stark contrast to many of his other screenplays). There is a tenderness here that can be felt and it’s used to make Michael sympathetic even when he is essentially a jerk to everyone he encounters except Lisa. With her he is understanding and patient, giving Michael a real humanity.
Directing a stop-motion film is a tedious process, which is likely why Kaufman enlisted the aid of Duke Johnson, whose credits include TV’s Moral Oral and Mary Shelly’s Frankenhole and a stop-motion segment of Community. The movement of the puppets is fluid and incredibly realistic, not unlike other recent puppet-based stop-motion films like Frankenweenie and Fantastic Mr. Fox, however Anomalisa’s realism is striking. The entirety of the production is meticulously detailed to be as real as possible, from a phone flopping on a table when thrown, cigarettes jostling out unevenly when the pack is shaken, all of it is so real it’s easy to forget you’re watching puppets.
While Johnson was likely in charge of the physical animation, Kaufman was obviously in charge of the minute movements and details of blocking and movement. Michael’s constant pinching of the bridge of his nose in frustration and exhaustion and the inclusion of some intense surrealism involving the design of the puppets and their facial construction are all evidence of Kaufman’s hand. He also uses the camera expertly, knowing when to leave a take long or keep it back from the characters to give them space and not feel invasive. He works well with cinematographer Joe Passarelli to keep lighting drab throughout Michael’s depression and key up the brightness when he exhibits happiness.
Thewlis takes the design and visual quarks of Michael and breathes life into him with his nuanced vocal performance. You can hear the anguish in his voice as he calls an ex that he just up and left years before, hoping that his delusion hasn’t reached her too but knowing it has. The frustration Thewlis puts forward is real and makes the well-written character pathetically endearing. Leigh wonderfully plays the terminally insecure Lisa. She expertly conveys the shyness and confusion born of Michael’s attention. Her vulnerability is real and so is everything else about her. Noonan has the difficult task of portraying everyone else in the film and in that task he does a fantastic job. He only slightly modulates his voice making it slightly feminine for the women. Everything else is done in the same voice with the same patterns, which sounds like it would be easy, but in reality it must have been exceedingly difficult to not vary his vocalizations for each character, as an actor’s instinct would dictate.
It’s a minor miracle that a film such as this could be made. It’s an animated film for adults, complete with harsh language and full male and female nudity and even a sex scene. True, the film was completed with the help of crowd-funding, but that only emphasizes the want for something like this. It doesn’t hurt that it was a Charlie Kaufman picture, which is becoming an event as he takes more and more time between productions. This isn’t the silliness of Team America: World Police, which is brilliant in its own way, this is an intense human drama with some equally intense humor sprinkled throughout that couldn’t have been made as a live-action film (easily, anyway).
Leave it to Charlie Kaufman, quite possibly the most original screenwriter in film history, to create a beautiful and moving adult drama and film it as an animated feature. With a sublime script and masterful performances, Anomalisa is a rarity in animation and a gem of filmmaking overall. Kaufman made the jump into unfamiliar territory for him to make the truest version of his vision come to life and he overwhelmingly succeeds.