After the self-consciously sprawling and all-encompassing ambition of his directorial debut ‘Synecdoche, New York, it probably wasn’t too surprising that Charlie Kaufman disappeared for a while. After all, when you’ve made a movie that seems to be about everything, it can’t be easy to narrow in on subject matter for your follow-up.
It’s also probably not too surprising that Kaufman would deliberately choose a far more contained project for his next go-round behind the camera, nor that he would end up embracing animation to extend his brand of mundane surrealism. ‘Anomalisa’ certainly feels like a Charlie Kaufman film from start to finish. For those who love that sad sack genius, it’s a depressing delight, and a powerfully oddball work that rests well within his résumé and should tickle the brains of the similarly cynical souls drawn to it.
The story follows a miserable motivational speaker named Michael Stone (David Thewlis) as he spends the night in Cincinnati before delivering a speech. He seems disgusted and dejected by everyone, unable to even commit to small talk (which Kaufman writes in hysterically exaggerated mundanity). It takes a few minutes to sink in, but every person surrounding Michael shares the same face and voice (the great Tom Noonan).
In this distinctly narcissistic world, everyone is a beige haze with the protagonist punished by being the only individual. It’s an ugly thought and simplification of humanity, but a mental state that everyone has experienced at least once if they’re being honest with themselves. After a series of gently comedic confusions as our hero struggles to deal with world, he hears a distinct voice (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and finds an awkward woman with a unique face who has driven from out of town to hear his speech. For a moment, there’s a human connection amidst a fog of discomforting conformity.
The movie is hinged around that elegantly simple metaphor for lonely love, and it’s so potent that it’s surprising no one ever thought of it before. Thankfully, it’s Kaufman who stumbled onto the idea, because as you’d imagine he certainly doesn’t follow it down an easy or sentimental path. This is a movie about the crushing reality that we are all ultimately alone, not some impossible fairy tale of love. Thank God for that.
The way Kaufman depicts a world of isolation through bitter surrealist comedy makes the first half of ‘Anomalisa’ a darkly comedic joy. When Leigh’s voice arrives, it’s jarring and upending. Yet Kaufman never strays from his bitter view of the world and the film is more powerful for it. As depressing and icky as ‘Anomalisa’ might be, it also taps into a certain universal human experience for those willing to admit that they’ve experienced it.
Working in animation for the first time, Kaufman (and his co-director Duke Johnson of ‘Morel Orel’ infamy) creates a beautifully unique world. Using 3D printers, the puppeteers and animators created something approximating miniaturized reality, without ever denying their plastic origins. All the puppets move through remarkably subtle human behaviors (which must have been extraordinarily difficult to animate one frame at a time), but the lines separating their faces from their head sculpts are clearly visible. There’s a specific reason for this that I won’t spoil because it hits a narrative and thematic note that shouldn’t be given away, but the animation style fits Kaufman’s brand of mundane surrealism perfectly.
This is the smallest and most realistic story Kaufman has ever written, so it only makes sense that he add the distancing element of animation to remove the film one step from reality. Animating something cartoonish like ‘Human Nature’ or ‘Being John Malkovich’ would be too obvious. In ‘Anomalisa’, the medium complicates and suits the material rather perfectly, especially during one of the most awkwardly and movingly realistic sex scenes to ever slip into a mainstream film. This ain’t ‘Team America’, but it benefits from that puppet distance from reality all the same.
Make no mistake, ‘Anomalisa’ is hardly a movie that will appeal to everyone. Kaufman’s world is too strange for that and this latest work can be particularly difficult to stomach for viewers who need things like easily sympathetic characters or comforting closure. No, this is a movie for oddballs who are as perplexed by human existence as Kaufman and appreciate the satire and understanding he brings to our most painful private moments. He’s a distinct filmmaker with a keen fascination for how people work and bizarrely funny/moving ways for depicting those observations.
‘Anomalisa’ might not quite hit the absurdist heights of ‘Being John Malkovich’ or the devastating honesty of ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’, but it finds a smattering of each quality within an impeccably unique work of art that only Charlie Kaufman could dream up. He’s one of those artists capable of such consistent eccentric brilliance that he likely won’t be properly appreciated until he’s gone. Feel free to embrace Kaufman now. Given the cold and lonely view of the world that he presents through his writing, the guy could clearly use the support… and an understanding hug probably wouldn’t hurt either.