Existential thoughts and ideals are the foundation for many of Charlie Kaufman’s films, thrusting his conflicted characters into both the greatly sublime and vastly melancholic. Being the intense character study that it is, Anomalisa proves to be no exception. Originally conceived for the stage, this stop motion animation film for grown-ups tells the story of Michael Stone, played by David Thewlis of Harry Potter fame, a man apathetic and disdainful of the world around him until he encounters Lisa, portrayed by The Hateful Eight’s Jennifer Jason Leigh, whilst visiting Cincinnati to give a self-help customer service seminar. Tom Noonan rounds up the voice cast, playing every other character on screen from the bellboy to Michael’s wife, who each appear to Michael to have the exact same voice and face. Noonan is an alumni of Kaufman’s prior filmography, playing a similarly omniscient role as Sammy Baranthan in Synecdoche New York, obviously no coincidence.
Popular criticism of Kaufman usually fixates on his cynical perspective on life, sex and relationships, and it is a fair criticism indeed. Depressed individuals trapped like sardines within the confinements of the ignorant rabble are his bread and butter when it comes to his screenwriting. Yet, his familiarity and experience in writing these tortured souls articulates the intricate beauty and sadness found in Anomalisa. Thewlis excels as the manic depressive Michael; the actor’s voice lends well to Michael’s fickle, manipulative nature and controlling temperament. It is these character attributes which prove to be both the catalyst for his relationship with Lisa, and ultimately the cause for its demise. Michael is a character familiar to audiences, the archetypal Kaufman protagonist. Akin to the performances of Jim Carrey as Joel (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Caden (Synecdoche New York), Thewlis plays the midlife crisis beautifully. Michael wants to escape but does not have the emotional or physical faculties to do so. His arc forgoes the pseudo-redemption/vindication climaxes of Kaufman’s other films, offering instead a further damning of Michael’s actions throughout Anomalisa. Kaufman answers criticism of Synecdoche New York, most lobbied at its apparent pretension and self-indulgence, by fitting Michael with this punishment.
Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Lisa is a perfect counterbalance to Michael. Insecure, yet sincere; funny, but free of ego. Despite encapsulating what is considered to be contemporary normality, the main facet of society that Michael (and, by extension, Kaufman) appears to detest, Lisa initially appears to be the answer to Michael’s dilemma. However, Kaufman treats the character with such respect when others, Michael in particular, show her none, that the audience cannot help but root for her. Rarely do exemplary human beings make for fascinating viewing, yet Leigh’s performance as Lisa is a wonderful exception.
Many critics have proclaimed this film, “the most human film to star non-humans.” Yet in a post Pixar/ landscape where animation is a continually improving yet underappreciated addition to the medium of cinema, this is hardly original praise. Nonetheless, Anomalisa is no doubt a visual masterpiece. Co-director Duke Johnson perfectly creates a reality that the audience can easily immerse itself in, a reality so like our own déjà vu will hit the viewer by the time Michael reaches his hotel. His treatment of the more abstract events that happen in Anomalisa are also masterfully staged, yet towards the film’s end feel ever so slightly rushed to the finish as Johnson and Kaufman feel obliged to comment on Michael’s failings rather than let the final scenes breathe. However, when this is done successfully, Anomalisa shines.