Charlie Kaufman owns the souls of the cinephile populace for writing magnificent works such as Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation (2002), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), and Synechdoche, New York (2009). They’re films obsessed with the mind, control, writing, memories and the elusive idea of love. It’s been 6 years and now he’s written and co-directed (with Duke Johnson) Anomalisa, a stop motion animated puppet film that checks all of the Kaufman boxes. The films stars three people: David Thewlis as Michael, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lisa, and Tom Noonan as the voice of dozen’s of other characters, man or woman or boy or girl (really!).
Anomalisa is a film about people longing for connection. Similar to Carol, but on a 21st century frequency. Michael has long been beaten by the mundanity of life like every other Kaufman schlub. A sad sack whose caught in cycles of never ending isolation. The first 20 minutes hammers home the instances where daily living has us all twiddling our thumbs: Taxi rides, the airport, the hotel elevator, hotel key cards, telephone calls, yada yada yada. Kaufman is a funny dude though so it’s not boring to watch Michael’s drole existence. In fact, it makes us sympathize with this alcoholic, unfaithful, saggy, middle aged man.
Kaufman hints that many of us are more like Michael than we’d care to admit. It’s a film in which melancholy slowly surfaces and then begins to drown the audience but the doors are locked and we cannot escape from Kaufman’s depressing profundities. It’s awesome.
When he finally hears a voice that’s different from everyone else’s, (Jennifer Jason Leigh’s <3) a warmth coats the film. Then they talk and communicate and yearn and laugh and love and sing and it’s all pretty pretty pretty pretty great.
It was written as a radio play and even as a film that’s still quite apparent. I don’t think it now being a film adds a ton, which is disappointingly simple for a Kaufman film but that’s what makes it unique to reckon with. Never has there been a film quite like this. And I’m certain there’s more to it than I realize. There always is with Charlie.
The animation does add a unique, strange aesthetic touch to a piece that runs on dialogue between 3 voices. The hand crafted design funnily gives it a human touch. Close ups reveal more than entire monologues in live action films do. It’s because Kaufman loads the film with dialectic flavor for his characters to make simple ideas massively complex and subtly profound ones.
In the latter half surrealism merges with realism and a weird Kafka-esque tone begins to uncomfortably set in. I selfishly wish it’d gone further with the Kafka shit, but what we get is goddamn great. Somehow this is both a simple film and also one with a grand canyon of human complexity.
Kaufman is in the business of making the mundane devastatingly honest and at times profound. The actors deserve some sort of award for making puppets among the most human characters of the year. Noonan’s voice hammers home conformity and offers loads of laughs. Thewlis conveys loneliness in each breath while Leigh silently roars with spirit. Can we just take a moment to talk about Jennifer Jason Leigh. She’s so so so great. What a 2015.
But behind the curtain is Charlie Kaufman, the puppet master. Towards the end of the film I realized his endgame and a sledgehammer of sadness hit me. Simple, but utterly profound. Audiences that demand happy films must live in a blissfully ignorant world, detached from the cold reality that Kaufman reckons with. His existential angst is the cinephiles gain. Loneliness, identity, and idealization of love flow throughout this stop motion puppet film and it’s hard to think of many flicks this year with such a profound exploration of the human experience. Anomalisa doesn’t transcend it’s roots as a radio play but it plants the seeds and lets them grow in another medium. A film of terribly sad, but truthful revelations about, well, life.