by Matt Levine
The double-edged beauty of the open ending is on full display in Anomalisa, a heartbreaking stop-motion drama (or something) co-directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson. The closure which, according to screenwriting manuals, should arrive at the end of a dramatic narrative is nowhere to be found here; we are left with only intimations of the future, each viewer envisioning the characters many years later. At least partially designed to frustrate and flummox, Anomalisa eventually reveals itself as an achingly sincere look at two people who, for a night maybe, find love.
Directors: Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson
Producers: Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman, Dino Stamatopoulos, Rosa Tran
Writer: Charlie Kaufman
Cinematographer: Joe Passarelli
Editor: Garret Elkins
Music: Carter Burwell
Cast: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan
Premiere: September 4, 2015 -- Telluride Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: December 30, 2015
US Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Blissful romance is not a main characteristic in the work of Charlie Kaufman, whose imaginatively surreal screenplays for Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind blend hard-edged cynicism, a penchant for the droll and absurd, and a painful empathy for flawed, lonely characters. (They also provided Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry with some of the best films of their careers.) Kaufman’s own directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, remains an underrated masterpiece, an absurdly complex riddle of a movie that charges head-on into weighty philosophical territory. It might seem that Kaufman took it easy following Synecdoche (which was released in 2008), but in fact for the last seven years he has been working on a “sound play” with the composer Carter Burwell and the three actors whose voices appear in the film—David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tom Noonan.
The idea to enlist the vision of animator Duke Johnson—a direction Kaufman originally resisted—came about in 2012, after which the project became a real possibility when it raised more than $400,000 on Kickstarter (so if nothing else, Anomalisa will go down as the best thing Kickstarter ever spawned). Stop-motion animation, though, turned out to be the perfect vehicle for conveying this most unromantic of romances; paradoxically, the more you concentrate on the puppets’ fabric or the deep seams etched across their faces, the more acute and moving their miseries become. Maybe in their fakeness we see a blank slate that reflects ourselves, as the movie asks us to ponder what force compels our actions. Or maybe (and this part is undeniable) the incisive dialogue and incredible performances never let us doubt that we’re watching real people, whose world is remarkably like our own in every way except appearance. In any case, Anomalisa's visual style is entirely unique and gorgeous in a spare, unembellished way; a close-up of glimmering ice cubes falling into a bucket is so unexpectedly beautiful (and strange) it takes your breath away.
This not-quite-reality brings to life the off-kilter world of Michael Stone (Thewlis), a middle-aged customer-service guru who is flying to Cincinnati to give a speech based on his book, How May I Help You Help Them? (That title is one of many brief jokes that typify the movie’s sense of humor, each witty moment also a little sad because it’s not too removed from our own reality.) The world to Michael is a din, a mess of voices, all of which sound the same, sputtering the same banal small-talk. The effect is underlined by the fact that everyone Michael meets—male or female, flight attendant or concierge--is voiced by Tom Noonan, his lilting syllables representing, at least for Michael, the wash of humanity. These people all seem to be based on same prototype as well, with bland facial features and haircuts only slightly varied for each background character Michael comes across. Michael might be hateful and misanthropic but he’s not unlikeable; we get the sense that he’s trying to connect with another person, any person, but just can’t force himself to do so.
Michael is married with a son, but we sense (long before he explicitly admits it) that he doesn’t know his family or perhaps even love them. He talks to them robotically on the phone, an argument with his wife always seemingly imminent. At one point he remembers he has to buy his son a birthday present and stumbles into a sex-toy shop, mistaking it for a toy store; instead of leaving, he buys his son an antique mechanical geisha that looks like a Picasso nude. Michael wonders if he has “psychological issues,” as he feels the need to escape from something as soon as he grows attached to it. Soon after arriving in his hotel room, he calls an old flame that he viciously dumped ten years ago, his failed apologies (and sexual invitations) leading to disaster. Love and happiness seem out of reach for this man, at least partially due to his own emotional hang-ups.
Out of the hum of identical voices in the hotel, Michael, somberly walking down a hallway, hears something different. A joyous, endearing voice—a female voice—drifting from one of the rooms. She’s Lisa (Leigh), a sales rep from Akron who idolizes Michael and his book; insecure but always hopeful, she’s a glimmer of light in Michael’s murky universe, an anomaly in his life so devoid of intimacy. While Thewlis and Noonan do incredible voice work in Anomalisa, Leigh’s performance is breathtaking; with her voice alone, Leigh conveys a multitude of emotions, fragility and joy and loneliness intermingling almost at once, giving life to a person who seems like she has her own past and future and tumultuous present. (It’s not just her voice, though, as the puppets’ animations were based on the actors’ facial movements while they recorded their lines, which partially accounts for the onscreen figures’ remarkable believability.) Lisa’s rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” begins as a joke but turns into the movie’s highlight, especially with a close-up on the bristling fabric of Lisa’s face at the exact moment Michael falls in love with her.
Michael and Lisa share a night in his hotel room, an act that seems rare for both of them; the puppets are anatomically correct, which is not a Team America-style joke but an attempt to be honest to the reality of the moment, their imperfect bodies and insecurities rapidly giving way to trust and pleasure. The entire scene in which they get to know each other in Michael’s hotel room, as he gazes at her lovingly and savors the newness of her voice, is unabashedly romantic; the film allows us to witness two lonely people share an unexpected intimacy, and it conveys their connection adoringly, as if to fend off the sadness and cynicism that surrounds it.
Indeed, the euphoric night shared by Michael and Lisa takes place only at Anomalisa’s halfway point; I won’t reveal any specifics, but their relationship takes a devastating turn, kicked off by a dream (one of the few “Kaufmanesque” moments in the film) that’s as funny as it is painful in revealing Michael’s deep-seated compulsions. This unsympathetic man often seems manic depressive; the hotel’s name, Fregoli, also offers a sly reference to the Fregoli delusion, a mental disorder that causes its sufferer to believe the world is populated by many versions of the same perceived enemy, who is bent on his or her destruction. (Hence, that ubiquitous Tom Noonan voice.) More frighteningly, Michael may simply be a man in his late forties who feels no love for his family, who doesn’t feel connected to anything, and who has given up hope believing anything will change, suffering from an existential nightmare that resembles an extreme version of our own worst fears.
Which leads Anomalisa to its overpowering ending, so striking—and initially so frustrating—because it comes abruptly and suggests that maybe these characters won’t be able to change. Or maybe they will. Obviously this is the strength of the open, ambiguous ending, which invites the audience to fashion a future for the characters they’ve seen onscreen; the subsequent events that play out in our head say as much about us, the viewer, as about the film itself. Anomalisa’s ending at first seems baffling and perhaps even cruel, especially in light of the loving moments these people have shared. But its incompleteness is ultimately the movie’s strongest asset, refusing to allow you to forget the experience once it’s over; certain scenes and moments have popped up in my memory over the last few days, made even more poignant in retrospect.
Maybe it’s partially the fault of the marketing campaign or just my own preconceptions, which led me to expect a grand and cerebral statement typical of Kaufman, with overt narrative diversions and surrealist conceits reminiscent of Synecdoche and Eternal Sunshine. In fact, despite its moments of mordant humor and absurdist quirks, Anomalisa is Charlie Kaufman’s most direct and empathetic film. With the aid of co-director Duke Johnson's animation prowess and actors who lend vivid life to hand-manipulated puppets, the disarming simplicity of Anomalisa coheres into a universal story of what it means to love, or even try to connect to, another human being.