Cacophonous voices arise and ebb into the ether as Anomalisa opens mid-flight on its weary protagonist, gray-haired author Michael Stone. He barely registers the chatter. The mundane sameness of being has deflated him in middle age. He’s heading to Ohio to deliver a keynote speech from his customer service best-seller How May I Help You Help Them? but, as we soon learn, he can barely help himself. Stone is about to discover there are worse fates than flying coach on business to Cincinnatti.
The animated film of the year isn’t a Pixar pixelfest or a kiddie product pusher, but a deep dive into the soul of a selfish narcissist lost in his own inescapable misery. Fun for the whole family it ain’t, but then again life in a Charlie Kaufman movie never is. Come for the R-rated stop-motion puppet sex—rawer, realer, and more intimate than Team America, and most live-action love scenes at that—stay for the morbid humor and haunting existential ennui.
Seven years after making his directorial debut with Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) again cuts acutely into the agony and absurdity of being alive, this time adapting his own minimalist “sound play” into an exquisite cinematic experience. Joining forces with co-director Duke Johnson (Moral Orel, Community), Kaufman offers a startlingly moving stop-motion animation for adults starring only ponderous puppets and the voices of David Thewlis, Tom Noonan, and Jennifer Jason Leigh.
Thewlis gives voice to Michael, and as he trudges through his travels we learn what ails him. Awkward exchanges satirize everyday social interaction, skewed toward Michael’s agitated contempt for others—an aggressively chatty cabbie, an unsettlingly engaging hotel concierge, the waitress who passive aggressively notices he’s had a few too many martinis. We’re forced to become intimately sympathetic to Michael’s tortured existence, spying as he strips naked, laying his fleshy physical and emotional flaws bare.
He’s a family man, but the strain back home is evident in a tense phone call dutifully placed to his wife and young son. He’s a minor celebrity on the motivational workplace lit circuit, if only to the wide-eyed conventioneers who credit his book for boosting productivity with his cheery sound bite prescriptions. And there’s more to Cincinnati than the zoo and the chili strangers keep insisting he try, to his growing annoyance; it’s also where Donna, the lover he abruptly jilted 11 years ago, lives.
Donna’s memory haunts Michael. Her hurt lives vividly in his head, in the bitter letter she last wrote him, which he keeps folded in his pocket. At first, he seems to see her face everywhere he goes. Every single person who crosses his path even sounds just like her, an off-putting trick of perception Kaufman achieves by tapping Noonan to voice literally every man, woman, and child around Michael, including his friends and family. It’s a hoax on the audience, who must decide as Anomalisa unfolds if Michael’s tortured ego truly deserves their sympathy.
Suffocated by the impersonal comforts of his hotel room, the restless Michael downs a drink and arranges a meeting with the woman he left behind, seeking solace in the memory of some long-distant happiness. “I think there’s something wrong with me,” he admits. It doesn’t end well, sending Michael wandering off into further restlessness. He searches the night for a present for his kid and bumbles into a sex shop where he picks up an antique Japanese sex doll, cementing his place as the world’s most halfhearted dad. The antidepressants aren’t helping and neither are the phony platitudes on which he’s built his corporate stooge success. In a drunken mania Michael sees his façade crumbling, revealing the mechanical parts within.
It’s not until Michael meets someone new that he realizes what he’s been searching for, and we realize what Kaufman and Johnson have been playing at. Through the oppressive din of homogenized faces and voices, he meets Lisa. She’s a dumpy sales rep from Akron who’s obsessed with Cyndi Lauper and self-consciously hides behind a wall of hair that obscures a facial scar she deems hideous. But she has the first unique voice he’s heard in years, a basic Midwestern dodder voiced to perfection by Leigh. Her face is different from the rest, too. Even if it’s not much to look at by Lisa’s own admission, Michael is captivated, and Anomalisa follows his seriocomic paranoid odyssey to its manic conclusion.
What’s more impressive than the complex, heart-aching, and often ugly depths of the soul Kaufman plumbs here is the vibrant humanity he and Johnson achieve with their Kickstarted oddity of a film, made outside the studio system and originally intended as a 40-minute short film. Carter Burwell’s evocative score propels Anomalisa as characters shuffle around a meticulously detailed, beautifully ordinary microcosmic world, only with realistic paunches and doughy marionette bodies and expressive faces bisected at the eyeline into jointed masks. Anomalisa has a good chance of becoming the first Oscar-winning film to feature a 3D-printed cast.
The conceit of Lisa’s uniqueness—an anomaly, like their romance and the film itself—is Anomalisa’s startling heist, a device that slyly emphasizes the subjective nature of relationships and how they can change and collapse in an instant. Ultimately it’s Lisa who comes out looking the best, scars and basicness and all. Perspective makes perception as we trudge through life on Earth. Michael Stone might not be the one most deserving of our sympathy, just another tortured white guy despondent with dissatisfaction, oblivious to his own shortcomings as he blazes through a destructive midlife crisis. As a wise man once advised while toasting to the douchebags, the scumbags, the assholes, and the jerk-offs of the world, the rest of us would be best served by one enduring piece of advice should we be so lucky to let the Michael Stones of the world into our lives: Run away fast as you can.