There really isn’t anybody like Charlie Kaufman. The widely adored writer of Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is finally back with his first film since 2008’s Synecdoche, New York, collaborating with stop-motion animation magician Duke Johnson, and also Kickstarter, to bring us this strange and beautiful delight called Anomalisa.
As the title would suggest, it’s in a category all to itself. This should not be a surprise to people familiar with Kaufman’s previous work; he has one of the most unique writing voices in the world, and his films have attracted intense admiration for their ability to translate his personal experience of the world into stories that resonate on an intellectually universal level.
Conceived as a sound play for composer Carter Burwell’s Theater of the New Ear (for another sample of this format, Kaufman’s Hope Leaves the Theater can be found on YouTube), Anomalisa bears a resemblance to those videos that put animation to speeches by David Foster Wallace or whoever— it’s clear that as an audio narrative, it works on its own.
What’s rather incredible about this is that instead of simply providing visual context for what’s in the sound play, the film’s superb animation (which was apparently accomplished with the help of some 3D printing) combines with the sound to create this wonderful marriage of style and substance, form and function, or whatever you want to call these false dichotomies. The visuals add enormously to the sound, and vice versa. There are even running gags that pop up in the scenery that deepen the humor of the movie’s very funny moments.
The plot seems nearly inconsequential, but is also everything the movie is about. Our protagonist is a man named Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), who flies to Cincinnati to give a motivational speech to customer service representatives, his area of expertise (he is, as they say, kind of a big deal). We observe the mundane sequence of his arrival at the airport and transport to the hotel, eventually arriving in his hotel room, where he tries to alleviate his boredom.
His overwhelming sense of discomfort around people, which we’ve witnessed in every step of the film up to this point, is only matched by his discomfort with being alone — his mind is a cocktail of anxiety, misanthropy and loneliness (who can’t relate to that?). While at the hotel, he encounters a young woman named Lisa, who is, for some reason, noticeably different than anyone he’s come across all day, or maybe ever.
The way this realization unfolds in Michael, as well as in the audience, is one of the film’s many pleasures. As we encounter more and more people in Cincinnati — the man next to Michael on the plane, his taxi driver, the hotel staff, his wife and son to whom he speaks via phone call — we quickly realize that they all have the exact same voice. Specifically, they are all voiced by actor Tom Noonan (who, oddly enough, sounds an awful lot like Charlie Kaufman himself).
This is a source of laughs for a while, but becomes a source of almost claustrophobic anxiety once Lisa comes along, the anomaly in a sea of sameness. The hotel becomes a world of existential bleakness, its very name, The Fregoli, coming from a delusional belief that the different people one encounters are actually one person disguising his or her appearance.
If you can imagine this sensation, the feeling that the world is overwhelmingly boring and monotonous, that people are painfully ordinary (or, as the kids might say, basic), then it’s easy to imagine what a revelation it is to experience someone who seems different and interesting. This seems to be Kaufman’s definition of love — not necessarily deep, abiding love (although maybe), but the experience of falling in love with someone, feeling as though you’ve found someone who is as different and distinct from the rest of humanity as you believe yourself to be. It is, of course, a horribly egotistical solipsism that lends itself to this particular delusion, but in that moment, it’s all that matters.
What comes from this is plainly one of the best movie scenes of the year, one of the best love scenes of all time, and a sequence of intimate moments more real and beautiful than a silly film review could relate. It’s one of those rare instances of cinema where it feels like something simple yet profound about real life is being captured and represented in front of you. And then you realize it’s being done by little dolls made of felt, and it’s made that much more powerful.
More will be said about this movie in the months to come, as it’s been getting a fair amount of buzz out of the festivals. It’s the kind of movie that plants itself in your mind and is hard to shake until you satisfy that compulsion to see it a second time, not necessarily to understand better, but to appreciate more fully. Ironically enough, Charlie Kaufman is his own anomaly in the world of cinema, and when he makes a movie, it’s like his voice is standing out amidst a sea of sameness. Anomalisa is yet another remarkable accomplishment for him.
Anomalisa is another remarkable work from Charlie Kaufman, who once again offers us a look inside his mind so that we might better understand our own.