Anomalisa, Charlie Kaufman’s first film since 2008 is a small but fascinating animated drama
“What is it to be human? What is it to ache?” These lines are spoken in Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa, but they would belong in any one of Kaufman’s films—such interrogations are key to the writer-turned-director’s whole oeuvre, which includes Being John Malkovich, Adaptation. and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
If Anomalisa feels especially fragile, it’s not only because it is a stop-motion animation film—and if it feels so naked, it is not only because the puppets are anatomically correct. We’re used to writers hiding away behind their characters, the more impersonal and unreadable, the better. But when you watch Kaufman’s work, you see his soul on display. He parades his thoughts and anxieties on stage, and he doesn’t dress them up, because he only seems to be interested in what’s true and what defines each and every one of us.
The story of Anomalisa is perhaps the simplest Kaufman has written, but behind its tender core is a great deal of sadness and even occasional darkness. The main character is Michael (David Thewlis), a classic case of a self-help author who cannot even help himself. He spends a day in a Cincinnati hotel, where he is scheduled to speak at a convention on customer service. Lonely and distraught in an anonymous world, he meets a young woman (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who has a voice different from everybody else.
“Your wife? Your son?” she asks him when he begs her to run away with him. “They don’t exist… they’re just them!” he answers, which sounds cruel but in that moment rings intensely true, because his escape has become a matter of psychological survival.
The script was originally written in 2005 as a sound play, so work done on sound and voice-acting is essential to the film, which opens with a chorus of voices heard in complete darkness. You could close your eyes and still experience the film in a very rich way, but why would you want to do that when Kaufman and his co-director Duke Johnson have put such care into crafting a puppet world at once dreamlike and oddly familiar. If you’ve ever travelled and come to a new city, you’ll recognize the locations. You’ve been in that airport, ridden that taxi cab with that obnoxious driver and settled into that ubiquitous hotel room.
Is it only a reflection of Michael’s state of mind, or has the world truly become an impersonal prison peopled by a faceless crowd? Is there any hope left for a spark, an otherness, an escape? Kaufman’s conclusion is open to interpretation, although different answers can be supported by the film itself.
As an existential drama that just happens to be animated, Anomalisa is in itself an anomaly, a film that is too personal and unconventional to exist in today’s cinematic landscape, and yet does. Nearly alone in an ocean of mass-produced gargantuan spectacles, it is a small miracle that Anomalisa exists. You want to grab it by the hand and never let go.