Published Jan 08, 2016There's a moment midway through Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson's Anomalisa that, both times I have seen it now, has brought the audience to a perfect silence. It's a moment so delicate and so enrapturing, a turn of character so breathtaking, that everything preceding that moment fades away.
Lisa, a shy call-centre employee, has joined Michael, a famous writer and motivational speaker, for a drink in Michael's hotel room. The scene is full of the social awkwardness that comes with the misguided hook-ups of middle age, all small talk and forced laughter. Just when we have an idea of how the scene might play out, Kaufman and Johnson take the mundane conversation into emotionally uncharted territory, as Lisa begins to sing Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun." What follows is a performance that reveals so much about who Lisa is, about her inner life and dreams and fears. It's a moment of unprecedented empathy and human connection. At this point, I should mention Michael and Lisa are puppets.
Anomalisa is a film full of wordless gestures that convey a lifetime of human experience and desire. From the way fingers twirl around a cocktail glass stem, to the way we express disappointment about our bodies, to the way we close our eyes when we sing, the film accentuates and magnifies the way we extend ourselves to others. Anomalisa might be the smallest of Charlie Kaufman's ambitious works, distinguishing itself from films like Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine, but it's his most quietly devastating film to date.
Michael (voiced by David Thewlis) is a successful business writer with a terrible condition: everyone he sees, from casual passer-by to his wife, has the same face and voice (in a performance of multitudes from Tom Noonan). The film follows Michael as he arrives in Cincinnati for a conference talk. As he arrives at the hotel, he looks back on his life, bemoaning his condition, when he hears a new voice. That voice belongs to Lisa (a career-best turn from Jennifer Jason Leigh), and the film follows their brief encounter. In terms of plot, that's about it, but that simple explanation belies the multitude of ideas about identity, love and communication packed into this film.
What Kaufman understands, perhaps better than any working screenwriter today, is the way we code our language of desire and longing. He contrasts the anonymity of daily human interaction with our need to connect with other people, and exposes the ways we often limit ourselves, holding back from the connections we desire the most in life. The choice to depict the film through stop-motion animation is essential to Kaufman's plea for empathy, highlighting these small gestures through the slightly stilted fashion of stop-motion, exposing their larger meanings in ways that would be too subtle for a live-action film. Anomalisa exists in a near-dreamlike state, a feeling that these fleeting glimpses into the lives of others may disappear at any time, a desperate temporality reflected in the ways light reflects off the faces of these all-too-human puppets.
While using Noonan's voice to express the world around Michael first comes across like a gag (the first time Noonan voices Michael's young son is a comic delight), that decision becomes essential to understanding the film's twin themes of connection and listening. By masking the voices of others with Noonan's, Kaufman implores the audience to listen to every inflection, every pause, every moment of hesitation to understand what his characters are trying to say. It's a performance unlike any other in recent memory, and one that could only work in the form of animation.
Much like this summer's Inside Out, another film about the need for empathy in our daily interactions, Anomalisa works as a new set of language tools to understand each other, but also acknowledges the difficulty in doing so. It's a deeply sad and lonely film, sadder than any I've seen in recent memory, but Kaufman relishes in the joys found when we see outside of ourselves.
Leaving the theatre, Anomalisa is the kind of film that transforms the world around you. Language feels a little more meaningful, those post-movie conversations with friends feel a little bit sweeter — I can't think of any higher praise than that. The film reinvigorates the stop-motion animated form, reviving the style into something never before seen, adult and essential. This is one of the very best films of the year, and an instant classic.