“Look for what is special about each individual, focus on that.”
Charlie Kaufman is one of the most unique voices somehow still allowed to work in Hollywood. His screenplays for movies like Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Adaptation are some of the most original things to have been made in mainstream cinema in the last 15 or so years. And when he was given the reigns to direct his first movie a few years ago, we got Synechdoche, New York, he disappeared way up his own ass of Kaufman whimsy and weirdness. And I loved it. I may not have understood much of it, but I loved it. So where did Kaufman decide to take his whackadoo ideas when it was time to make his sophomore movie? He made a serious, somber relationship movie, using stop motion and puppets, of course. He made Anomalisa.
Customer service expert Michael (David Thewlis) flies in to Cincinnati where he will be the guest speaker at a conference for customer service professionals. From the nervous passenger beside him on the plane, to his asthmatic cab driver, to the awkward bell boy at the hotel, all of Michael’s interactions with people show a man detached from the world. A phone call to his wife and son back home show a man just as detached from his marriage and family.
Immediately calling an old flame, Michael is disappointed when he realises that dinner won’t lead to casual sex, and that he would have to actually make some sort of personal connection if she was going to sleep with him. But soon after, he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and is immediately drawn to her. By definition, Lisa is plain, mundane and just as bland as the rest of the world around him, yet Michael is infatuated. And the two share an immediate chemistry that neither can deny.
There’s something about the soft, canvas-like dolls used to make this movie that makes the world of Anomalisa and the depression that fuels it seem even sadder than if it was real people in real settings. You can see the seams where the faces have been sewn to the heads, you can see the wrinkles in the fabric of their skin, you can see so much artificialness, but there’s something about the eyes of these dolls that seems so real and full of emotion… Usually sadness.
Kaufman also makes the very Kaufman choice to have every single other character that isn’t Michael or Lisa voiced by the same person, Tom Noonan. Man or woman, young or old, Noonan keeps the same deep, flat, almost monotone delivery that makes the characters deliberately interchangeable. The way I assume Michael sees everyone, until he meets Lisa.
Sure, the stop motion approach is gimmicky. And it’s a gimmick that will probably get the movie a little more attention than a Charlie Kaufman relationship study usually would. But the thing is, I love Charlie Kaufman’s gimmickry. All of his movies have gimmicks that get them noticed, but it’s the emotion at the core of them that makes them memorable.