With apologies in advance to the people of Cincinnati, in the worldview of Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson‘s “Anomalisa,” or at least to the misfortune of its characters, the Queen City represents a soul-crushing dullness and boredom that could drive any man mad. For customer service guru and author Michael Stone (brilliantly voiced by David Thewlis as a classic Kaufman-esque misanthrope), already fundamentally unhappy and in the midst of a huge existential crisis, Cincy is a grueling hell on Earth of fatuous people and irritating small talk. In all fairness, it could be any faceless and anonymous city — part of Kaufman’s aim is to examine and send-up the mundanity of the business trip and that odd experience of feeling like an alien exploring the world of this not-quite-real, single-serving fantasy existence where people wait on you hand and foot.
Kaufman’s latest loopy movie, the kickstarted stop-motion animation film “Anomalisa,” is about an author flying into Cincinnati for one night to deliver a keynote speech for the customer service industry. Easily rankled and eventually exasperated with the mindless taxi drivers and hotel staff he encounters, and suffering from a deep loneliness, the neurotic author, Stone, finds himself desperately reaching out to past lovers (who he never left on good terms) for any kind of female companionship.
Married and the father of a young boy, it’s clear Stone’s family provides little source of joy and only compounds his despair. So a chance encounter in the hotel, which turns into an intimate erotic affair with a self-esteem-challenged woman named Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), briefly makes Stone believe he has found a cure to his anhedonia (without too many spoilers: best. cunnilingus. scene. ever?).
Kaufman’s tragicomedy feels very much connected to the in-a-funk characters of “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation,” but especially feels like a continuation of the miserablist tendencies and what-does-it-all-mean? crises explored in “Synecdoche, New York.” However, while the grim, sad-bastardness of ‘Synechdoche’ threatened to undermine its sometimes baffling ambition, Kaufman and fellow director Duke Johnson strike the right balance here, deftly mixing spiritual crisis and despondency with moments of painful awkwardness and biting hilarity.
The movie’s most superb and savvy device, or one of many anyhow, is the inspired choice of having Tom Noonan voice every character in the film that isn’t Stone or Lisa, furthering the theme of the everyman as dull-as-nails pedestrian.
“Anomalisa” will seem bizarre and enigmatic on the surface to some viewers. It can be a disorienting at first, as the movie makes you work to understand it at times, and it certainly never spell its intentions out. Some of its nightmarish, occasional sub-Kafka-ish surrealist qualities — minor shades of David Lynch meets “Inception,” but only at times — may throw the audience off balance too, but once you’ve adjusted to its off-kilter rhythms, the movie is a relatively clear-eyed picture about grappling with the anxieties of life, our struggles to connect and find happiness, and the personal dilemmas that often feel insurmountable (ok, relatively).
A play on words off Lisa and anomaly, which has its own ironies since she is not exceptional, “Anomalisa” is also often very wry, clever, and hilarious in its amusing exploration of hotels as a hellish purgatory, and the ironic notion of customer satisfaction as a tool to inspect a sorely dissatisfied individual. Yet, for all its strangeness and badinage, there’s a soft-hearted tenderness at its core. Stone’s need for connection isn’t just desire, lust, and the fear of being alone, but that legitimate human need to feel loved.
“Anomalisa” won’t be for all audiences, and certainly not for those that can’t appreciate the deadpan absurdity that Kaufman wrings out of many painful and cringe-worthy moments. And there’s also a one-note oppressive beige quality to the color and tenor of the film, but it’s a) purposeful, and b) deeply appropriate to the movies theme of dreading the monotony of life and people.
Written by Kaufman and directed with the aforementioned Johnson, (the animated “Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole” series and the animation short, “Beforel Orel: Trust”), it’s evident that the thematic concerns of the film are singularly Kaufman’s and the animation strengths come from Johnson. It’s a largely perfect marriage of sensibilities, and the stop-motion techniques of the film give the movie a tactile and handmade quality that make the sorrowful and anguished emotions feel all the more genuine and honest. Other aesthetic choices are ace too: Carter Burwell’s beguiling score is clutch, gently persuading out the underlying melancholy of the narrative and lead character.
More than once now Charlie Kaufman has posited that life is a slog, a difficult struggle, and the crushing weight of existence can be an overwhelming burden on the psyche. But the delightfully downcast and sometimes masterful “Anomalisa” proves there is more than one way to skin a similar cat, and the unbearable darkness of being can still radiate glimmers of beauty. [B+]