From a statistical perspective, the Toronto International Film Festival is defined more by the movies you don’t see than the ones you do. Given that a modestly grueling schedule allows you to see between 10 and 15 percent of TIFF’s 300-plus film lineup — this year I saw 28 movies; once, when I stayed for the duration, I made 50 — when critics lament that it wasn’t a good year, what they’re saying, at least in part, is that they made bad choices, or at least unlucky ones. At any moment you’re watching a movie, there are dozens of others screening around Toronto, and chances are that at least one of them is pretty good.
In those circumstances, it’s of special note when critics choose to see a movie at TIFF twice, forsaking a chance at a new discovery — or at least a chance to work ahead on a future theatrical release — to get a better grip on a film that’s truly gotten its hooks into them. This year, more than any I can remember, my colleagues chose to go back for seconds on one particular film: Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s “Anomalisa.” So it’s no surprise that the movie wound up dominating Indiewire’s critics poll, winning Best Narrative Feature, Best Director and Best Screenplay. It also managed a second-place finish for Jennifer Jason Leigh in the supporting performance category. (My vote went to Tom Noonan, who plays… well, we’ll get to that.)
“Anomalisa,” which also snagged one of the few distribution deals closed during this year’s TIFF (it will open in limited release Dec. 30), is the most conceptually straightforward of Kaufman’s movies: In essence, it’s about a business-book author (David Thewlis) who confronts his life’s regrets during an overnight hotel stay. But because Kaufman chose to shoot the movie, which was originally performed as a live radio play, in stop-motion animation, its very mundanity takes on an eerie cast. The puppets’ fleshy textures deliberately trouble the uncanny valley — at times, you’d swear you were looking at real skin — and they’re anatomically accurate, to boot. When Michael (Thewlis) disrobes to take a shower, there’s a poignancy to the way his shriveled penis dangles beneath his ample paunch. (We’ll skip the details on the movie’s sex scene, except to say that it somehow managed to be more realistic than the unsimulated sex in Gaspar Noé’s “Love.”) There’s something fitting about the fact that Kaufman’s most humane movie is the one with no actual humans in it.
Some of “Anomalisa’s” detractors charged that it would be of no interest were it not animated, which is a little like saying that “2001” is only good because of the space stuff. With one major exception, there’s almost nothing in the movie that couldn’t be done in live action, but the stop-motion prevents the surroundings from being merely mundane. Rather than the burnished anonymity of an upscale hotel room, we enter a miniature simulacrum of one, which makes it both familiar and strange — and it’s essential that we feel both at once. From the cab driver who talks up his hometown with an enthusiasm that shades into aggressiveness to the mystifying pictograms on in-room phones — is room service the hamburger? — “Anomalisa” gives common experiences a series of ever-greater twists, until what was recognizable has become utterly alien.
“Anomalisa’s” most extravagant gesture is using the same puppet to represent all but two characters: Michael and the anomalous Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an anxious customer-service rep who’s come to the hotel to hear him read from his best-selling book, “How Can I Help You Help Them?” The bloodless nicety of customer service serves as an internal metaphor — a synecdoche, even — for “Anomalisa’s” vision of human interaction, which oscillates between anonymous pleasantly and sudden hostility. With the exception of Lisa, who, ironically, has learned to think of herself as indistinct, everyone Michael meets is literally the same, right down to the fact that they’re all voiced by Tom Noonan, with deliberately minimal changes in inflection. It’s as if the infinite Malkoviches have taken over the world, but none of them notice that they’re not individuals.
It’s a violently misanthropic way of representing the world, but it’s also made clear, via a mechanism that I won’t spoil, that the other characters’ apparent sameness is a function of Michael’s own dissatisfaction. Being the only “real” person in a universe of clones doesn’t bring him any solace; it makes him feel like he’s the only one who doesn’t fit. (His alienation is both personal and political; the movie is set during the George W. Bush era, and one point Michael cries out, “The president’s a war criminal!”) When he finds Lisa, it’s as if he’s being seen for the first time, but we’re also aware that this is a middle-aged man’s fantasy, rediscovering himself through the attentions of a starstruck younger woman. Given that the hotel Michael stays at is called the Fregoli, which is also the name of a psychiatric disorder, it’s possible to see all of “Anomalisa” as a psychotic delusion, only with no sane outer world to escape into. In that way, perhaps, it’s a perfect movie to sample and resample in the hothouse environment of a film festival, where after a few days spent in dark rooms it can feel like you’ve lived there your whole life.