Author’s note: One of the joys of seeing Anomalisa a few months before its official release was knowing as little about it as I did. No trailers have been released, and all I had to go on was a few stills and a one sentence plot summary. This is certain to change between now and its January release, but I would heartily recommend being as in the dark as I was. As such, this review is a tad more coy than usual. I’m also refraining from a rating for now, because I still can’t figure out what it should be.
Charlie Kaufman is never going to be accused of taking the easy way to making a film. The writer of modern classics Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, as well as the fiercely uncompromising Synecdoche, New York (which he also directed) has not had a screen credit for seven years, but thanks in part to a successful Kickstarter campaign he has returned with an adaptation of his 2005 stage play Anomalisa. Originally conceived as a stop motion animated 40 minute short, the project exceeded funding expectations and expanded to feature length. After a career founded on high concept ideas, it would be safe to assume something special could be coming down the pipe.
What is perhaps most surprising, though, is how small the scope of this film truly is. It concerns Michael Stowe (voiced by Harry Potter vet David Thewlis), a customer service author who is visiting Cincinnati to speak at a conference. A lonely, melancholic man who struggles with isolation among a sea of humanity, Michael tries in various questionable ways to cope with his solitary existence when he meets Lisa, an alluring stranger who seems capable of unlocking long dormant aspects of his personality. Is she the one to finally break him out of his funk?
The choice to present Anomalisa in stop motion is a fascinating one. It is the sort of animation style that allows for incredible and distinctive creative expression. Production companies like Aardman (various Wallace and Gromit projects, Chicken Run) and Laika (Coraline, ParaNorman) have instantly recognizable styles, but Kaufman has no history in the medium. Ever the iconoclast, Kaufman’s approach to a stop motion project (co-directed with Duke Johnson, the director of the animated segments of Community’s claymation Christmas episode) has to be one of the most realistic stop motion films that has been seen in some time. There is no fantasy here, as the directors instead saddle the style with the heft of the mundane. It is a curious choice on the face of things, perhaps a deflection designed to enhance the central themes at play.
Kaufman’s script must walk a tricky tightrope, as his main character is more than a bit of a cad who must be seen as pitiable if he is not entirely sympathetic. Thewlis provides the voice that emanates from a deep well of misery and reclusion. The film does not concern itself with the hows and whys of what led him to this particular emotional state, but his methods for coping with it are clear. This is how Kaufman sets into motion the central thematic elements of Anomalisa, a quiet rumination on how we as humans endure our own vices and shortcomings and how those actions may not last. Thewlis is just enough of a sad sack to create an empathetic reaction, but not so much to justify him. It is a delicate balance, and one he handles masterfully. There is a universality to the existential weariness at the core of Michael that cuts across the whole of the human condition.
What is arguably most impressive about Anomalisa is how effectively it manages its small scope in relation to its grander themes. This is a different sort of script for Kaufman than his others, much less outwardly clever in its construction (though it may be his funniest script); that Kaufman feel is there, but it comes out more in his directorial choices than his writing. All of these factors, the slight story, the hyper-realistic stop motion, the notable voice acting choices, Carter Burwell’s score, the melancholic tone, it all adds up to a memorable, and often unsettling experience. It is a challenging film indeed, one that seems to simultaneously exceed and undermine its expectations.
One thing is for sure: Anomalisa proves once again that Charlie Kaufman is a singular artist of modern film, a writer and director of incredible potential. Projects like this, challengers of both the heart and the mind with such a unique approach to cinema, do not come around often. And while there are certain aspects of the film that do not completely resonate, these moments are outnumbered by its more sublime aspects. More often than not, Charlie Kaufman films require quite a bit of time and multiple viewings to fully digest. That is almost certainly the case here as well, but not in the standard mind-bending way of a film like Adaptation or Synecdoche, New York. Regardless of this, even on its first viewing Anomalisa is a film boiling over with humanity (warts and all), and the sort of cinematic experience that does not evict itself from the brain easily.