As if Charlie Kaufman’s films (Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) weren’t strange enough already, the writer and co-director – with Duke Johnson – of Anomalisa takes us into a bizarre and captivating stop-motion animation world during one ordinary man’s existential crisis.
Anomalisa is the melancholy tale of Michael Stone (David Thewlis), celebrated writer of customer service books, arriving at the Fregoli Hotel in Cincinnati, Ohio the night before his big seminar. Despite his teachings and advice on befriending customers and making them feel special, Stone can’t seem to make a connection of his own with anyone he meets, bitterly avoiding conversations to the point of cold callousness and general rudeness. The world around him is bland and boring, so much so that everyone around him looks – and sounds – the same (all voiced by Tom Noonan), except for Michael, of course.
One evening, after one too many drinks and a failed attempt in trying to connect with an old flame, Michael is overtaken by a soft voice belonging to Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who just happens to be in town with her friend to hear him speak and the pair recognize him instantly. They hit it off immediately, and soon Michael’s affection towards Lisa, who’s different just like him, leads to a night of drinks as he falls head-over-heels for her. Seeking new pleasures and passionate inspiration largely absent from his marriage, Michael lustfully chases after the insecure Lisa, who is far from the perfect angel that Michael holds her up as.
Once can’t help but feel while watching Anomalisa that the film wouldn’t work quite as well as straightforward live-action; Kaufman actually wrote it as a play, under the pseudonym Francis Fregoli. Part of the film’s captivating aura is its unique stop-motion animation, both fascinating and complex, which is almost symbolic in its ability to invoke the sameness and universality that exists around us. Anomalisa, at its core, is a world of mundaneness and boredom, a free-fall into the depths of conformity and existence that Michael desires to escape.
But Anomalisa is also bitterly funny, its unique comedy emitting from the absurdity of Michael’s day in Cincinnati and the pointless small talk amidst a sexual affair that offers him a sliver of fleeting satisfaction. Behind the film’s animation there is a general discomfort that exceeds the most senseless escapades that humanity ferociously consumes. At its heart lay a cold world of self-imposed loneliness, enclosed in the rigidity of home and work life.
By the film’s end everyone awaits for Michael Stone to take the stage and inspire his audience with guidance and instruction. But he may not be the clear-eyed visionary everyone thinks he is. As clueless as anyone in the audience, he’s looking for guidance himself, in a life lived with abject disappointment and indifference.
Anomalisa is a powerful meditation on loneliness more adept in its (literal) construction to explore alienation and isolation than any live-action film has attempted in recent memory. Charlie Kaufman and his co-director Duke Johnson have managed to evoke a frigid world of perpetual solitude that few other narrative films has been able to capture, animated or otherwise.