Directed by Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson
Starring the voices of David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan
Released on 11th July 2016
Charlie Kaufman’s been making us wait. It’s been eight years since his last feature film, Synecdoche New York, with the much-missed Philip Seymour Hoffman. There was talk of a possible musical but what he’s delivered instead is an animation. This, however, is not kids’ stuff. It’s made very much with adults in mind and combines traditional stop motion (a la Wallace and Gromit) with 3D images.
Anomalisa started life as a radio play, leaving your imagination to create the pictures. Now, although that work is done for you, there’s still more than enough to chew over. At the centre of the story is Michael Stone (voice of David Thewlis), a customer service expert in Cincinnati to speak at a convention. On the outside, he’s successful, moderately famous and respected in his field. But away from all that, he’s agonisingly lonely in his marriage, unfulfilled and on the verge of breaking down. Alone in a comfortable but anonymous hotel, he encounters two women: one is his ex-lover from over ten years ago and the other is Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), who’ll be in the audience for his presentation. And maybe, just maybe, she’s what he needs ….
As Kaufman is one of cinema’s most distinctive and individual writers (think Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind), it’s almost de rigeur to expect him to come up with something different. And his choice of plasticine figures to tell this story is perfection. It’s a small story featuring even smaller people. That’s not to say that it’s trivial because, for the two central characters, it’s potentially life changing – if they want it to be. While it might look like just another one night stand in a city hotel, for Michael it’s more than that. Miserable in his marriage, full of regrets for his past and finding his life full of mundanity, he knows something’s wrong with him but can’t figure out what it is. His meeting with awkward sales rep Lisa is a wake-up call, one that he grasps at but lets slip through his fingers. Seconds after declaring he’ll leave his wife so they can be together, he’s finding things about her to pick on. It’s as if nothing is ever right for him. He may not want to be alone, but maybe solitude suits him best.
The figures look remarkably realistic, but you never forget they’re just models. Initially, you think they’re all wearing narrow framed glasses, but that’s actually because of the way the puppets are constructed. By way of another reminder, they’re just slightly out of proportion yet you soon find yourself viewing them as actual people: it’s a tribute to the voice acting skills of Thewlis and Jason Leigh that you think their facial expressions, especially their eyes, change all the time yet they hardly ever do. And the fact that they’re artificial means you’re observing them more objectively.
If that all sounds terribly serious and downbeat, don’t you believe it. There is plenty of humour, mainly of the darker variety – Michael’s expedition to a nearby toy shop to buy a present for his son and finding doesn’t sell the kind of toys he’s looking for is just one. And there’s some juicy, pin sharp ironies – the customer service expert being on the receiving end of the hotel’s own clinical customer service.
With the exception of Michael and Lisa, all the other characters, are voiced by Tom Noonan. It accounts for why most of the women sound rather male and why Michael’s little boy has a voice older than his years. Inevitably, they also sound very similar and that’s actually the point: in Michael’s depressed mind, none of them stand out or mean anything and he feels like he inhabits a world of constant but indistinguishable voices. Listen to the end credits and you’ll see what I mean.
It’s a beautifully observed piece of work, with some bell-jangling details. Anybody who’s been on their own in a hotel room will get a strong sense of deja vu as they watch Michael pottering around his luxurious but uniform suite. There’s also a touch of Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation about it, a similar delicacy as well as the general discomfort of staying in what’s supposed to be luxury. And, yes, it’s surreal. Yet, despite the artifice of the characters, what they experience is remarkably true.
Anomalisa is released on DVD on Monday, 11 July and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 14 July.