Anomalisa is unlike anything else out there. Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s new film, based on Kaufman’s “sound play”, uses puppets and stop motion to tell a story about finding real human connection in a trivial and monotonously isolating world. David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tom Noonan are terrific as the voices in the film, and the haunting and painstakingly intricate production design by John Joyce and Huy Vu gives the film a truly unforgettable quality. While it may not win Best Animated Picture at the Academy Awards this year (it’s up against Pixar’s Inside Out, which has little to no chance of losing), Anomalisa is certainly the most unique animated film to come about in a long time.
The movie revolves around author Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), as he arrives in Cincinnati to speak to a crowd about his newest motivational book geared towards customer support representatives “How May I Help You Help Them?”. As Michael interacts with the people around him—beginning with the man sitting next to him on an airplane, to the voice of an ex-lover in a letter he reads to himself, to a cab driver, to the bellhop and the guests at his hotel, to his own wife and son—we see how disconnected he is with his surroundings. Everything around Michael is eerily similar. Aside from Michael and Lisa, a character who I will discuss in a moment, every other character in the film (including the women and children) is voiced by Tom Noonan (he is actually credited as “Everyone Else”). Additionally, Everyone Else has slightly modified versions of the same face, adding to the themes of monotony and isolation.
After spending some time in his hotel room and meeting up with an old flame in the hotel bar (a rendezvous that does not go very well, to say the least), Michael hears a voice. For the first time in the film, he hears a voice that is not voiced by Tom Noonan. Rushing out of his room, he knocks on door after door before he finally meets Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh). He is in love at first sight—or rather, at first sound. She is different, and he knows it immediately. Lisa and her friend Emily (voiced by, surprise, Tom Noonan) are in Cincinnati from Akron to see Michael speak about his new book. Michael, utterly infatuated with Lisa, invites the two ladies to have a drink with him, and he eventually gets to be alone with the object of his affection. Anomalisa—as Michael comes to call her, combining her name with the word “anomaly”, a word she learned and loved while reading Michael’s book—is perfect in Michael’s eyes, and he is willing to abandon everything in his life in order to be with her. But does he truly love her, or does he merely love the fact that she’s the only unique person in Michael’s otherwise homogenous world?
Anomalisa is truly a remarkable feat of filmmaking. The technical aspects of the film speak for themselves. Every single detail of the hotel room, and the streets of the city, and the puppets, and the toy store (not that kind of toy, though). The meticulous details are exquisite to behold. Many of the filmmakers had previous experience in stop motion animation (including co-director Duke Johnson, as well as production designers John Joyce and Huy Vu), and combined with the words of Charlie Kaufman, the results are spectacular. The dialogue in the film is thought-provoking and often very funny. Much of the humor is visual, however. An ongoing joke in the film, for example, is that everyone in Cincinnati talks about the chili that the town is known for, as well as the Cincinnati Zoo. In an early scene, Michael’s cab driver talks about both of these things, and they are paid off later by a magazine in Michael’s hotel that says “Try the chili” and a billboard of a monkey that simply declares, “The Cincinnati Zoo: It’s Zoo Sized!”.
Ultimately, the film is about isolation, and a yearning to connect. Michael Stone is a sad and strangely sympathetic character. We understand his plight. Everything around him, from the people to the buildings to the advertisements, have become drenched with monotony. After hearing voice after voice that sounds identical, and seeing face after face that looks identical, we are just as fascinated by Lisa as Michael is. While Lisa is normal by all standards—she works a customer service job in Akron, OH, she is a little overweight and is self-conscious about a small scar on her face that she covers with her hair, she is self-deprecating and does not see her own value—Michael is able to see through it all and recognize the beauty inside her. One of the most memorable scenes in the film, and likely the one that will be discussed for years to come, is an intimate scene in which Michael and Lisa make love. The scene is odd and beautiful and awkward and moving. And it is quite interesting to see how a scene depicting two puppets having sex can illustrate the true vulnerability of a tragically isolated character.
Anomalisa is one of a kind. The voice actors are perfectly cast, and the visuals alone are worth the price of admission. Charlie Kaufman delivers as he always does, and keep an eye out for stop motion animator Duke Johnson in the future. If you can check it out in the theater, you will not be disappointed.