By Jack Ryan, Senior Staff Writer
If Charlie Kaufman has set out to prove anything in his seemingly brief career, it is that humans are ugly beings, only occasionally capable of immensely beautiful moments. “Anomalisa,” Kaufman’s first delve into the stop-motion format, continues this encompassing thesis, combining the artificiality of its puppet players with the deep honesty of its script to create an animated experience that yearns to be understood.
“Anomalisa” is a day in the life of Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a self-help writer lost in the monotony of his existence. Stone, psychologically disillusioned to the point of seeing and hearing everyone around him as the same white man (Tom Noonan, billed as ‘Everyone Else’), is traveling to Cincinnati to give a speech on customer service. Here, he discovers Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a strangely unique woman, characterized by her own voice and face, as well as a scar next to her right eye.
For an incredibly bizarre film — one that probably wouldn’t have been made if not for its Kickstarter funding — “Anomalisa” also contains the most believable and genuine tone of a film from the past year. Much as reality can be, conversations here feel like mundane processes or enlightening poetry, characters are vulnerable and self-obsessive, and subjects like nudity and sex aren’t romanticized, but just happen.
This honesty is paradoxically enhanced by Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson’s use of stop-motion animation. There are times when Michael will look completely human, creating an interesting parallel between our perception of him as a puppet and his perception of those around him — from a distance, the belief of personality and consciousness can feel true, but upon closer examination, it’s simply artificial.
The models themselves, 3-D printed and made blatantly unreal by an indented trench that runs along the hairline, are beautifully — and terrifyingly — expressive, more so than most actors, or even people. The puppets may be fake, but the emotions surely aren’t.
Equally impressive is the level of personality — or lack thereof — that the three voice actors put into their characters. David Thewlis keeps Michael leaning between misunderstood and schizophrenic, and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Lisa is enamoring in her innocence and evasion of affection. Tom Noonan is hilarious through repetition, creating the much-needed humorous backbone for the film, while also setting a terrifying surrealist environment á la “Being John Malkovich.”
Kaufman’s script for “Anomalisa,” adapted from his own radio play, is his safest to date, featuring particularly natural dialogue (at least for Kaufman) and a very slow plot. Many will be turned off by the lack of action, but “Anomalisa” is more concerned with the power of boredom than the relief of conflict.
Early in the film, Michael makes his way from the airport to his hotel room. This sequence is stereotypical in film, often utilized by filmmakers to give the opening credits a nice background, or to provide large chunks of exposition. Kaufman and Johnson provide the opposite, forcing Michael to continually endure the same polite introductions and uncomfortable silences with temporary acquaintances, gaining nothing but the insistent knowledge that he must visit the Cincinnati Zoo.
As I mentioned earlier, this same realism is also prevalent in “Anomalisa’s” pivotal sex scene, one of the past years most discussed sequences. Forget the warm fuzzy lighting, unnecessary musical overludes or selective shots that pollute films with sex as a major theme (“Fifty Shades of Grey,” to name a major offender). Here, like in life, sex is awkward, with Michael and Lisa slowly flowing between polite conversation and intimacy like a pair of confused teenagers making out for the first time. It isn’t pretty, sexy or even necessarily nice to watch, but damn if it isn’t honest and special.
“Anomalisa” is the kind of picture that is far, far more than the sum of its parts, and although its slow plot and unique imagery will undoubtedly put off some viewers, its powerful insight on what it is to be human and singular make it one of the most iconic pictures in recent memories.
“Anomalisa” is nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Picture, the first R-rated film to do so. It is now showing at the Esquire Theater in Cincinnati.