How do you know you’ve found the right person? And how do you know they’ll stay that way? It’s this fundamental human question that forms the basis of Kaufman’s latest, Anomalisa.
Kaufman’s second film in the director’s chair follows Michael Stone, a highly successful but deeply insecure customer service guru, who experiences a reprieve from his ennui when, during a business trip to Cincinnati, he encounters Lisa, a perfectly ordinary, indeed unremarkable, call center employee, who is to him utterly unique.
The film bares many similarities with Kaufman’s previous work — the subtle seeding of themes, for instance, as in the name of Michael’s hotel — but with one key distinction.
Anomalisa is a stop-motion animation that has, on its face, no reason not to be live-action. There’s no call here for anthropomorphized animals a la Fantastic Mr. Fox or Gothic grotesques like those in which Tim Burton specializes. Michael (as voiced by David Thewlis) simply goes about his evening — drinks at the bar, ordering in room service, maybe an ill-advised call to a former paramour (as voiced by repeat Kaufman collaborator Tom Noonan).
The use of puppets creates a feeling of disconnection that gibes with Michael’s own experience of the world. That Michael and Lisa are quite so realistic, though, with such subtle degrees of expressiveness, allows for fully-rounded performances. Despite a noticeable bisection at the eye-line, the world of Anomalisa — as created by co-director Duke Johnson — is so grounded in its details – like the generic but expensive-looking abstract that adorns the wall of Michael’s hotel room — that you may occasionally forget you’re watching beings of cloth and clay.
An extended sequence that stays on Michael’s front as he makes a trip from his hotel room, down the corridor, to get ice, is utterly convincing. If it weren’t for the slightly uncanny aspect, reinforced by Noonan’s recurring vocal presence, the film would stand alongside Lost in Translation and Up in the Air as a compelling reflection on midlife dissatisfaction and regret.
In this regard, the film blends together the mundane — the operator insists on relaying every ingredient of Michael’s room service order — with the absurd — as in Michael’s foray to the office of the hotel manager
While to reveal the exact nature of Anomalisa’s conceit would be to ruin the unveiling, the film’s emotional power is largely due to the strength of the vocal performances. The Lancastrian Thewlis finds an undercurrent of plaintive desperation to Michael’s outward cheeriness as he seeks to impress the shy, self-effacing Lisa, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh with winning awkwardness. Noonan’s more measured tones, meanwhile, are used to great effect in a number of supporting roles.
Duke’s craft, meanwhile, previously seen on broader, more comic display in the Christmas-themed stop-motion episode of NBC’s Community, also extends here to the more anatomical details. Dino Stamatopolous AKA Community’s Star-Burns also serves here as an producer.
Where Team America infamously offered up outrageous carnal acrobatics, Anomalisa takes on a far greater challenge: pathos.
The awkward negotiation towards sexual intimacy in Kaufman’s film – the awkward asking and giving of permission each step along the way – feels utterly genuine; no small feat even for actors of flesh and blood. The artificiality of Michael and Lisa proves no obstacle to our feelings for them as “real” people.
This film marks a clear progression in Kaufman as a filmmaker. More disciplined, less meta, than either Adaptation or Synecdoche, New York, his two most recent works, Anomalisa feels like a more mature work. Where Adaptation was about a youngish man struggling to live up to his potential and Synecdoche dealt with the overweening ambition, Anomalisa portrays the boredom and aloofness experienced by a professional at the top of their game.
Full of hope, horror, heartbreak, and Cyndi Lauper — Carter Burwell provides the twinkly, otherworldly score — Anomalisa is both funny and moving, and manages to say something truly unique about individuality, disillusionment, and love.