Charlie Kaufman, the bonafide genius behind Being John Malcovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, has brought another unforgettable film to life, ruminating on the unstoppable mundanity of life; using stop motion marionette puppets.
Leading man (or puppet of a man) Michael Stone – voiced by David Thewlis) is on the road to deliver a seminar on the latest “customer service” fad when he’s compelled to break himself of the mind numbing life that he’s built for himself. The people around him begin to sound the same (Tom Noonan voices almost every character in the film) until he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh); the siren cutting through the deadening hum of the rest of the world.
Kaufman’s masterstroke is to tell the tale (intentionally or not) using puppets. It disorientates you temporarily as you marvel at the visual art unfolding before you. Directors Kaufman and Duke Johnson focus in on the detail of the designs of the puppetry – especially the texture of the skin; it’s hypnotic. And while you’re acclimatising to the form, you don’t quite grasp whether this world they’re occupying is the world in which these events are occurring, or whether this is some kind of manifestation of how this character views the world. It really becomes apparent when Michael is searching for a toy for his son on the trip, and comes across an old Japanese toy that has a metallic skeleton peeking out beneath its skin. Michael, momentarily, is enthralled by it and it’s enough to make an impression. Michael seems like a narcissistic callow individual, and the hollow hotel setting only serves to further make his attempts to reconcile/reconnect with old flame Lisa (with a wife and child at home) all the more sickly. The longer the film progresses and the longer that Lisa’s voice penetrates him you do begin to empathise with his megalomania.
Kaufman’s films force you into moments of self reflection where you begin to question the boundaries of your own reality. There are hints in the film of the mechanical reality of the puppets bursting through, not only for us to see as the audience, but for the characters to observe. In one of the pivotal scenes of Anomalisa, Michael is in a scuffle with another puppet/person and it reveals part of the metallic skeleton beneath their artificial skin. Michael looks spooked and yet immediately continues to run back to Lisa. It’s a depth test for your levels of paranoia and if your own narcissism views external factors as your primary sabotage.
The expressive puppetry and the sophisticated animation of emotion, along with the voice acting of the players (particularly the omniscient Noonan) is excellent. Thewlis has an authoritative quality when he’s playing the public and confident Michael, but there’s also a quality of fatigue in his voice as the monotone hoard pounds him into submission. It’s a thoughtful and tender voice performance. Jennifer Jason Leigh does a stellar job with Lisa. It’s such an all encompassing and engrossing vocal performance that breathes the character to (modest and unspectacular) life. Her songs are intended to be ‘laughed off of American Idol quality’ in any other content; but here they’re an escape for Michael and the audience.
Anomalisa is an impressive technical feat and another Kaufman film that grows like a virus in your subconscious.
Directors: Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman
Writers: Charlie Kaufman, Charlie Kaufman (play) (as Francis Fregoli)
Stars: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan