No two Charlie Kaufman films are alike. Nor is any Charlie Kaufman film quite like anything you’ve ever seen before. Such is the case with Anomalisa, a stop-motion feature about a lonely self-help author and his one-night affair with a lady named Lisa. Anomalisa features odd-looking, yet very anatomically correct, puppets rather than actual actors. Now why would Kaufman go to the trouble to make a stop-motion puppet show rather than use computer generation? Or actual actors? There must be a point to this madness, right? Aah… Let’s see, shall we?
Michael Stone (voiced by British actor David Thewlis) is an author spending a night in Cincinnati. The following day, he’ll speak to a group of fans about his new book on proper customer service. We can sense that Stone leads a humdrum life. Everything about his life is dull. The Cincinnati airport? Looks like all the others he’s seen. The cab ride to his hotel? Like any other. Stone doesn’t particularly want to talk, but the cabbie insists on educating him about all the local attractions to see during his stay. The fancy downtown hotel? Like all the others in which he’s stayed. For someone who makes his living teaching good customer service, Stone makes a peculiarly bad customer.
By the time he unpacks his bag, two realities began to sink in for me. First, I wondered if Anomalisa was going to be as mundane as its protagonist’s life. (Perhaps the point of Anomalisa was simply to marvel at the technology?) And second, I realized every other character was exactly the same puppet. While the hair, eyes, and clothes might be divergent, the base puppet was exactly the same. The check-in clerk, the bellhop, the cabbie. All the same face. And they all sound the same. In fact, character actor Tom Noonan voices every other character – females, children, young, old. They all sound like Tom Noonan. In one of the greatest feats of irony in recent filmmaking, the name of the downtown Cincinnati hotel is the Fregoli. That’s not a real hotel, but the Fregoli Delusion is a rare disorder in which a person believes everyone with whom he has contact is, in fact, the same person. Leave it to Charlie Kaufman to sneak that into his screenplay.
Later that evening, Mr. Stone happens upon a woman whose voice is different. Her name is Lisa, and she’s a customer service representative and fan, who has driven all the way from Akron with her best friend, to see Stone’s presentation. Immediately, we notice Lisa is not a variation of the same puppet. And she actually has a female voice – that of Jennifer Jason Leigh. It’s instant attraction for Stone, even though Lisa appears to be just another non-descript lonely person leading a monotonous workaday life. We’re never quite sure what the attraction is, but we know it must be strong for her character to stand out so vividly in Stone’s mind. He wines & dines her (and her friend), and then Lisa and Mike spend the night together, making more passionate love than many human actors have made in recent cinema history.
The third act of Anomalisa takes us on a wild ride, beginning with Stone’s dream, continuing through his speech the next day, and ending with his return to his home in Los Angeles. This section of the film is so eloquent, I actually forgot I was watching puppets. They begin to feel like real people during this segment.
I can’t give anything else away without spoiling it, but suffice to say that this is where we see Charlie Kaufman come through. You see, Kaufman wrote the screenplays for Spike Jonze’s first three films – Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. And, as in those pictures, just when we think nothing makes any sense, reality strikes. Anomalisa is the best film he’s ever made, and you’ll find yourself thinking it through days after you see it.
What does it all mean? And why puppets? Now, I can’t get inside the mind of Charlie Kaufman (nor do I especially want to), but he’s created a minor masterpiece here. He’s latched onto our lucid imaginations in a way few filmmakers ever have. When we least expect it, the person we think could become our “life partner” walks into our life, and we imagine a life of total bliss – before we know anything about that person. As reality begins to sink in, that imagination of ours crashes back down to earth – leaving us wiser but, we often believe, no better off than before. I was reminded of Simon & Garfunkel’s song, “I Am A Rock.” Mike Stone could simply accept his boring life, but instead he seeks to love – someone, anyone – even though that love may eventually result in heartbreak. There’s a lot of psychology going on here, and Anomalisa practically invites us to watch it at least a second time.
I believe the use of puppets plays right into this theme. What we see on the screen is Mike Stone’s imagination – not his reality. The whole film exists in his imagination. The realistic movie would have starred real actors – all of whom look different, and possess different voices. In this scenario, we would never understand Mike’s instant attraction to Lisa. Some viewers have complained that the puppets are a little creepy. I believe had Anomalisa starred real actors, Mike Stone would seem creepy. The role simply couldn’t be played by a real human without seeming like he’s taking advantage of Lisa. Hence the puppets. That’s my take. Yours may be different. But at least we’re discussing deeper themes than, “Boy, wasn’t that a great explosion when that car crashed into the side of that skyscraper?” Anomalisa is a completely and totally unique experience, and ranks as one of this year’s very best films.
-from contributing editor, Andy Ray
Andy Ray film reviews appear on TheFilmYap.com, where he also serves as film historian for the website.