Nobody makes movies like Charlie Kaufman. Whether writing the script for another director or directing himself, Kaufman’s work takes a wildly outlandish concept and places his well-rounded psychologically complex protagonist in the emotional wringer. What makes Kaufman’s work so routinely profound on basic emotional level is that he never lets his characters lose their humanity within the layers of oddities that Kaufman places in them. No matter which film by Kaufman we’re talking about, he has an uncanny ability to tell stories that delve into the intricate neuroses that afflict countless people with an unparalleled honesty. It’s been seven years since a Charlie Kaufman film last graced the screen with 2008’s Synecdoche, New York. Returning to the big screen with the stop-motion animated drama Anomalisa, Kaufman along with co-director Duke Johnson have crafted another achingly human portrait, this time of loneliness and love. This is a film of marvelous visual beauty that is only matched by its beautiful honesty in reaching into the dark recesses of emotional insecurity.
In 2005, Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) is travelling from Los Angeles to Cincinnati for a one-night stay to speak at a sales conventions. Michael is the author of the book How Can I Help You Help Them? But Michael is stuck in a certain malaise. Everyone he encounters looks the same and sounds the same, regardless of age or gender. Whether calling home to his wife and son or reaching out to an ex-girlfriend whose heart he broke years ago, Michael is surrounded by people who operate with a certain sameness. That all changes when Michael hears a voice in the hall of his hotel. He rushes out to find this voice that stands out from the crowd, which is where he encounters Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh). After a number of drinks with Lisa and her friend, Michael invites Lisa back to their place. The two share a tender evening together, Michael feeling reinvigorated by the company of someone who stands out from the crowd of the nondescript. But as much as Michael wants to preserve this moment with Lisa, even considering leaving his wife, it may be more difficult than initially thought.
Anomalisa is very much a movie for people who’ve felt alone in a crowded room. This feeling is amplified by the fact that every character that isn’t Michael or Lisa is voiced by veteran character actor Tom Noonan. At first, Michael’s affliction that he’s surrounded by variations of the same faceless person isn’t exactly obvious, only becoming more and more apparent as the story unfolds. Though it feels unsettling and almost dystopian at first, it gives the relationship between Lisa and Michael a bold vibrant life, a feeling that this is something special. And that relationship is the heart of Anomalisa, and contains some of the most strikingly realistic portrayals of a quick-spark romance and sexual intercourse. It’s the minor details that Kaufman and Johnson give the sexuality between Michael and Lisa that makes it unlike any other portrayal of sexuality on screen.
The animation of Anomalisa is absolutely gorgeous, and stunningly realistic. As to be expected, Kaufman sneaks in plenty of his wry brand of humor within the profound emotional complexities of the story. Running at a brisk 90 minutes, Anomalisa isn’t the nearly three-hour emotional beating of Synecdoche, New York, yet is just as stirring on a purely human level. Anomalisa is film that does demand multiple viewings to fully understand its layered complexity in its portrayal of human relationships. I haven’t seen a film this year like Anomalisa, and its meditation on relationships and loneliness will stick with me long after I’ve finished this review. This film hit me as only a Charlie Kaufman film can. Anomalisa is a visual and intellectual wonder, and one of the most honest and true films of the year.