Anomalisa is an animated film that transcends all other animated features before it. The film is a strange and dreamlike experience, but when the it does make it’s point it does so with profound, dark brilliance. It’s a stop-motion animation, written by Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind scribe Charlie Kauffman and co-directed by Kaufman and Duke Johnson, in which the puppet characters act very human. David Thewlis voices the central character, a marketing guru from Los Angeles spending the night in Cincinnati to deliver a motivational speech. The title of the film seems to reference anomie – his lack of feeling comfortable in any group.
The direct meaning of the word Anomalisa becomes clearer as the film progresses and goes from being a comedy of awkwardness to an exploration into some deeper content. Without describing too much, what is evident is just how original this story concept truly is. In a nutshell, the movie is an elongated story about a love affair. Thewlis’ Micheal Stone is clearly unhappy with his work, his marriage, even his son. Nothing satisfies him, and he seems disconnected from the world and himself. His plane touches down in Cincinnati. He settles into the hotel and orders room service while pacing around. He impulsively invites an old flame out for a drink (hoping to get lucky), but he’s oblivious that he hurt her so terribly that she can’t stand to be in the same room as him.
Then he becomes smitten with a guest at the conference, a woman who wears her hair a special way to hide her scar. Her name is Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh). Michael thinks that it’s love at first sight. He seems to think that Lisa is his chance at redemption, someone who will pull him out this malaise that he would refer to as his own life. At this point we already know that this could never be the case because Michael is a terrible judge of his own needs. His judgement is so bad that we go from rooting for Michael at one point to wondering if he needs to some sort of mental health professional.
Kaufman, who’s been known take characters in way too many directions at once, has never before managed to structure and contain the products that come from his very fertile imagination. Kaufman is asking the question, What makes people fall for each other and how do they eventually lose interest?
Puppet characters are typically meant to amuse and bring the audience joy. The characters in Anomalisa are struggling. Their struggle makes you think about their loneliness,despair, and alienation, topics no one would want to see in a film if Kauffman didn’t write such compassionate characters with dry senses of humor. Kaufman and Johnson shoot the characters in a very careful way, not cutting much, just letting them sit there. That decision proved to be vital, just letting those characters work at their pace, allowing a sense of realism to develop and break through the animation.
Not many people are willing to flock to a theater near them and sit for ninety minutes to watch a puppet movie and be reminded of all the bad memories that may have occurred in their lives. The crazy thing about Anomalisa is that the audience quickly forgets they are watching puppets and are able to see these characters as the people they portray. We sit there and start wondering if we are anything like Micheal Stone, and start to contemplate our own issues and repetitive behaviors. Perhaps that speaks to the brilliance of Charlie Kaufman.