Directed by Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman
Starring: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan
Rated R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity and language
1 hr. 30 min.
Only from the imaginative mind of writer Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) could this film have evolved. Stop-action characters buffeted by longing and loneliness. Lovers involved in an illicit affair in a Cincinnati hotel. Full frontal nudity. Puppet sex.
Author and customer-service specialist Michael Stone (David Thewlis) has arrived in town to speak at a sales conference. Contrary to his upbeat and best-selling book (smartly titled “How May I Help You Help Them”), Stone himself is an emotional wreck. Everyone looks the same. Everyone sounds the same. Depressed, alienated from his wife and son, bored with his life, Stone mopes around his room and wishes he were elsewhere.
Then he hears a different voice outside his doorway and rushes to see who it is. He meets Lisa Hesselman (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and her girlfriend and invites them downstairs to have drinks. Eventually, Stone invites Lisa back to his room. She is shy. He is enamored. They share their hopes and dreams, and eventually make love. Repercussions soon follow.
Without giving anything away, Kaufman and Johnson have created a world in which puppets and people are interchangeable. Man or woman, it makes no difference. Like puppet parts, you can switch the bodies, the faces, the voices and still have the same person.
By contrast, Stone and Hesselman — the way they look, the way they talk — are unique, and that is their blessing and curse. In their conversations over drinks and, later, in Stone’s hotel room, we get a sense of their personal awkwardness, their inability to relate to all these same people, and their personal longing for some type of deep human connection.
The most affecting scene is when Lisa quietly sings Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” Michael is enchanted and the rest, as they say, is nature calling.
Technically, Anomalisa is a breakthrough in stop-action animation. Choosing puppets over clay, Kaufman and Johnson have come about as close as possible to creating a real-world puppet universe that functions in an adult setting.
The question is, do puppets have an advantage over humans and feature-film footage? For what Kaufman is trying to accomplish, I would say yes. This is a film about viewpoint and philosophy, and without the puppets, the director’s point might be lost or simply impossible to make.
Anomalisa is a world in which humans can be molded to Kaufman’s take on life and love. It’s a world constructed to thrive on manipulation and sameness, everything manufactured for its appeal and its marketing savvy. It’s no small irony that Anomalisa’s world is not far from our own, living as we do in a franchised country where we’ve come to expect the same franchise quality — the same food, the same hotels, the same excellent customer service, the same smile, the same thoughtful treatment, the same outcomes to our choices.
Anomalisa as a film seems to wonder if making different choices, even bad choices, is worth escaping social sameness, even for a short while: The freedom to be miserable or not, to have affairs or not, to take a risk and lose, or to simply break away and then return to our same lives.
One often expects that choice leads to some type of evolution in thinking, but Kaufman and Johnson seem intrigued by those choices where we crash into something, even something as enjoyable as illicit sex, and learn nothing. In Anomalisa, experience is a choice in and of itself, and what we choose to do with our choices is the definition of free will.
Is choice worth the risk? Anomalisa doesn’t answer that question. That choice is left up to you.