ANOMALISA Review: Heartbreak Animated One Frame At A Time

Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson make the deepest stop motion movie ever.

Halfway through Anomalisa everything comes together - why there’s such a limited voice cast, why the stop motion puppets have visible seams on their faces, what the hell is going on at all - and I got goosebumps. I all but levitated out of my seat as I understood what Charlie Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson were doing with the film, and what had already been an incredibly personal, deeply human story became absolutely profound, sad and painfully true.

At first it seems like the stop motion nature of the film is a gimmick; after all, most of the movie takes place in a hotel and is a series of scenes between people talking. You could make this movie with human beings, and with a fraction of the effort. Except that you can’t, and what seemed like a weird tic at first - all but the lead puppet has the same face, every character but the lead is voiced by Tom Noonan - becomes the central driving metaphor of everything. It’s perfectly Kaufmanesque in that it’s a surrealism that is completely in service of story, emotion and a powerful theme.

David Thewlis voices Michael Stone, a motivational speaker who works within the customer service industry. His book, How Can I Help You Help Them, is all but the Bible for phone reps and salespeople. His latest speech takes him to Cincinnati, which happens to be the home of his old flame, who he hasn’t seen in a decade. As Stone’s plane lands we see his deeply ingrained ennui, see how he shuffles through the world and suffers through standard human interactions as he tries to find something in this generic world that can make him feel again.

In the midst of all this, in a world where everyone talks like Tom Noonan, Stone hears another voice, a unique voice .It’s Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Lisa, a shy and dowdy girl with a scar on her face and incredibly low self-esteem. She is the only person different, the only person unique, and Stone - who has a wife and child at home - is drawn to her obsessively.

The animation in Anomalisa is spectacular; the characters breathe, and I mean that very literally. The realism of the environments and the bodies of the puppets (yes, there is full frontal nudity in this stop motion film) clashes perfectly with the slightly mannered style of stop motion. The artifice and the honesty are in constant conflict, adding a layer of meaning and engagement. As a viewer I found it thrilling to have the form of the storytelling be as integral as the story being told - truly this is where the medium and the message come together and elevate each other completely.

Thewlis is brilliant casting for Stone, whose existential quandary and malaise feels like a continuation of the wanderings of Johnny from Naked. But even if his presence isn’t a callback to Mike Leigh’s masterpiece, nobody can intone the grey monotone of depression as charmingly as Thewlis. He’s so charming, in fact, that it’s easy to think Anomalisa is a movie about what a good guy Michael Stone is and how hard the world is for him, instead of being a clear-eyed examination of restless male ego and self-destruction.

It’s a Kaufman film, though, so of course it’s eminently relatable underneath all of the surrealism. There’s a hilarious scene where Stone takes a shower in his hotel room and finds it impossible to get the right temperature, a small moment of comedy stemming from something very, very real. Also real: as Stone steps out of the shower he is completely nude, his puppet body surprisingly realistic, including his penis. It’s the reality, the relatability that sucks you into the world of Anomalisa and that, at first, makes you think that Michael Stone is hero.

The film is enormously subjective, and we see the world through Stone’s perceptions, and that includes Lisa of the title. Voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh, she’s the only other person in the world who isn’t Tom Noonan, who has her own face, and Stone chases the sound of her voice through the hotel halls in an act of desperation. It is easy and tempting to dismiss Lisa as yet another Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but that would never be Kaufman’s style. Remember, this is the guy who had Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind say "Too many guys think I'm a concept, or I complete them, or I'm gonna make them alive. But I'm just a fucked-up girl who's lookin' for my own peace of mind; don't assign me yours.” He’s treading this ground again, in a new way; since the film is so deeply from Stone’s POV it’s easy to mistake Stone’s projections as the reality of Lisa.

Thankfully Leigh is able to bring the fragile reality of Lisa to life. She’s sweet but dim, a girl as swept up in the weird moment of connection as Stone is, but whose fragility Stone never respects. Lisa is a telephone customer service rep, traveling to Cincinnati with her best friend to hear Stone talk. Her friend is the pretty one, the sexy one, the one all the guys like, and Lisa hasn’t been in a relationship in eight years. Stone’s attentions are overwhelming for her, and she gets swept up in Stone’s narcissistic whirlwind. But even within all of that Leigh makes Lisa a person who has spent eight years alone and built herself a word - she’s not a pathetic loser, she’s a complete human being with dignity.

There’s a third act event that is absolutely heartbreaking and I am excited for more people to see Anomalisa so I can hear which of the two - Lisa or Michael - they identify with. I think it’s a testament to Kaufman’s extraordinary insight into human beings that you can feel tragic sadness for both of these people at the same time.

Anomalisa is deceptively simple, its restricted setting and stop motion animation hiding a complex and careful study of loneliness, connection, and the monstrously self-destructive ways we can be be lost in our own heads, selfishly separate from the rest of humanity. Anomalisa is a wonderful movie, a funny movie, a sad movie, a shattering movie, a true movie, an honest movie, a beautiful movie and an essential movie.

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