Every time Charlie Kaufman (2008's "Synecdoche, New York
") writes and/or directs a new picture, it is cause for celebration. "Anomalisa" may be his most technically auspicious yet, an aching, dreamy, R-rated stop-motion animated drama defying easy description. Co-directed by Duke Johnson, the film imagines a world nearly identical to our own, but populated by marionettes free of strings. The animation, reportedly given further dimensionality via 3D printers, perplexes in how it was achieved while verging on photorealistic. If "Anomalisa" is a remarkable visual anomaly, the sensitive, character-driven storythink 1991's "Dogfight
" meets 2003's "Lost in Translation
" meets 2009's "Love Happens
"goes a long way in providing it a restless, authentic soul.
Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) arrives in Cincinnati on business. He takes a taxi from the airport, checks into the upscale Fregoli Hotel, is accompanied to his room by a wet-behind-his-ears bellboy, and promptly orders room service. At every turn, he is confronted by the endless prattling and awkward small talk inherent in customer service. Michael is respectful but obviously annoyed, which makes the discovery that he is actually the author of a self-help book on customer service, "How May I Help You Help Them?" all the more surprising. He will be giving a speech on the subject in the morning, but for tonight he is yearning for companionship outside of his life back home (he is unhappily married and has a young son). When attempts to reconnect with old flame Bella fizzle out, he finds himself having drinks in the hotel bar with a pair of women in town to hear him talk. The introverted, less confident of the two, Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), doesn't quite believe it when Michael invites her back to his room. This could be the start of a happier future for both of them, or the catalyst for heartbreak.
"Anomalisa" unspools solely from the point of view of Michael, a middle-aged author and public speaker whose surroundings are overcome with a terminal sameness. Each person in his life, from family to acquaintances to strangers on the street, sound the same (all are voiced by Tom Noonan). Lisa is different; she stands out to him immediately, even if he is not quite sure why. She is voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh (2015's "Welcome to Me
") in a performance as expressive and moving as Scarlett Johansson's transcendent vocal turn in 2013's "Her
." The more Michael gets to know her, the more privy he becomes to her insecurities (she wears her hair down to hide a scar on her face) and beautifully gentle spirit. The magic of their night togetherthere is a lovely moment, soaring in its tender simplicity, where he coaxes her to sing her favorite song a cappella, Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun"is captured by directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson with a touchingly observant vulnerability.
"Anomalisa" floats by in a transfixing gush, feeling less than half of its 90-minute running time. When the film takes a turn in the closing scenes, one that will not be revealed here, the results are crushing, but perhaps a notch too abrupt to hit the emotionally lyrical peak for which it is aiming. Voices, however, are used in ingenious ways throughout, but especially during this finale. David Thewlis (2014's "The Theory of Everything
"), as Michael, and the aforementioned Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tom Noonan (2009's "The House of the Devil
") are perfectly cast, treating their roles with all the passion and commitment of live-action parts. "Anomalisa" is gorgeous to look at and maybe, at times, a little creepy, a nightmare Michael experiences wandering deliciously into territory regularly occupied by Luis Buñuel and David Lynch. The core landscapes and themes, though, as well as the wants and desires and confusion of its characters, are empathetically anchored to planet Earth. People can be cruel and fickle. They can be miserable, perpetually unsatisfied, and stuck in their ways. Michael is all of these things, and he's floundering. The heart wants what the heart wants, but what if the heart no longer knows?