Directed by: Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson.
Written by: Charlie Kaufman based on his play.
Starring: David Thewlis (Michael), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Lisa), Tom Noonan (Everyone Else).
What the great shames of American movies is that they have never really gotten over the notion that animation is strictly for children. As a medium, animation can do so much more than children’s movies, but too few directors either have the patience, money or opportunity to use it to make entertainment for adults – and too many adults dismiss the few examples that do come along. Anomalisa, the latest masterwork from the twisted brain of Charlie Kaufman – along with Duke Johnson – will likely not change too many minds – the film was funded by Kickstarter donations, and took some time to find distribution, even after it was critically acclaimed on the festival circuit this fall (where I saw it, at TIFF). But the film is as moving and quietly profound as any live action film you will ever see – and could probably only work as animation. And it is definitely meant for adults.
The film opens with Michael (voiced by David Thewlis) arriving in Cincinnati by plane – and taking a cab drive to his upscale hotel. He is there to give a talk at a conference the next day, but although he appears to be successful at his job, and even somewhat well known in his field (we can hear the whispers of people in the lobby as he walks by recognizing him) – he is also miserable. He talks on the phone to his wife, and son, even though he clearly doesn’t want to. He reads a note from an old lover – who was clearly not happy with him when they broke up – and gradually we realize why. She lives in Cincinnati – and he is wondering if he should give a call – but when he does things do not go as planned. He seems resigned to his miserable night – and then he hears a voice that entrances him. This bellows to Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) – and he is instantly smitten. After all, everyone else in the movie sounds like Tom Noonan – and not Tom Noonan doing different voices, all the same Tom Noonan.
That is the setup of the film, which really is quite simple – and the rest of the film is as well – at least in terms of its plot. Kaufman, the writer behind films like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and writer/director of Synecdoche, New York has specialized in films that mess with your head more than a little bit. Anomalisa is a little simpler in terms of its setup than the others – perhaps owing to its roots as a “sound play” (which is apparently like a radio play, but performed on a stage – but you don’t see the actors). But the simplicity of the setup makes the film perhaps even more quietly profound and devastating as it moves along. Like many a Kaufman hero before him, Michael is trapped in his own head – unable to enjoy his life, and constantly searching for something new and different – as if that will somehow satisfy him. Also like many a Kaufman hero before him, he gets caught in one surreal situation after another – including his Kafka-esque hotel and a sex toy store. It’s a disorienting world – most of it in his own head.
Animation was the right choice for the film – and probably the only one, as I don’t think the movie could possibly work as live action (and that is not a criticism of the film – in fact, I’d consider it praise). Kaufman’s co-director on the film is Duke Johnson – who has done some shorts, and a stop motion episode of Community – and clearly knows his stuff. The characters in the movie are puppets – and we can see the seams on their faces, where the animators can swap out different pieces to give the characters different expressions. Animation gives the movie its surreal edge, to be sure, and allows for its brilliantly staged nightmare sequence – but I think it also deepens the themes of the movie – showing us just how trapped Michael feels – how he feels manipulated by people, and outside forces. As a technical achievement Anomalisa is a masterwork – it looks great, the sound work is impeccable, the score by the great Carter Burwell is one of his best.
But, Anomalisa is far more than a technical achievement. It is one of the best comedies of the year – full of wonderful sight gags, and clever dialogue. It is an intellectually stimulating one, full of ideas about who we are as people. It’s an emotional experience as well – eventually building to a devastating climax, and then going just a little bit farther to introduce the tiniest bit of hope to the film. As a writer, Kaufman is perhaps without peer in movies right now – his characters are always flawed, sometimes fatally, but he always remains sympathetic to them, without fully forgiving them for their sins. As a director now, Kaufman is two for two when it comes to masterpieces. This is one of the very best films of the year.