'Anomalisa': Puppets are invested with a full range of human emotion

The film features the voice work of David Thewlis as a motivational speaker who encounters a fan (Jennifer Jason Leigh) while staying at a hotel.

Paramount Pictures
'Anomalisa' includes voice work by David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

“Anomalisa” is another fantasia from the perfervid imagination of Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter of “Being John Malkovich," “Adaptation," and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Kaufman demonstrated a fondness for puppets in “Malkovich” and now, with “Anomalisa,” a stop-motion project co-directed by Duke Johnson, he has made a movie inhabited entirely by figures made of felt. The wonder, the astonishment, is that these puppets are invested with a full range of human emotion. 

The film is about Michael Stone (beautifully voiced by David Thewlis), a motivational speaker in the service industry with a new book out called “How May I Help You to Help Them?” A transplanted Englishman living in Los Angeles with his wife and young son, Michael is first seen flying into Cincinnati, where he is due to give a lecture the next day before flying back.

He seems deadened by the thick gabble of small talk on the plane and the anonymous bustle in the airport. He wearily engages with a talky cabbie on the ride to the hotel, an upscale establishment named Al Fregoli. That monicker is Kaufman’s little in-joke, except the joke is all-encompassing: Fregoli is a delusional condition in which paranoiacs believe they are being tormented by a single person hiding behind multiple disguises.

Michael isn’t necessarily paranoid, but the movie registers his psychic unravelment by rendering all but one of the people in the film with essentially the same face and voice. (The flat, affectless intonations are all by Tom Noonan.) The one exception is Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh at her best), whose sprightly speech, which Michael first hears outside his door, lures him like a siren’s call into the hotel hallway. She is the anomaly in his world – his “anomalisa.”

But before he encounters Lisa, one of the first things he does after he checks into his room is call up out of the blue the old flame, still living in Cincinnati, that he walked out on 10 years earlier. Bella, when she finally agrees to meet Michael for a drink in the hotel bar, is a seething bundle of resentments, and the reunion is a disaster. Doubling up on his martinis, Michael, whose marriage is clearly on the rocks, acknowledges to her that “there is something wrong with me.” This motivational speaker, blurry with midlife depression, is looking for a reason to motivate his life.

He finds it with Lisa, who, with her friend Emily, also a customer service rep for an Ohio baked goods company, is staying at the same hotel to hear Michael’s lecture. (Few other movies, besides "Lost in Translation,” perhaps, have been this good at depicting the steady-state vacuity of the generic hotel experience.) Mousy, insecure, smitten by her idol Michael’s attentions, Lisa can’t quite believe he is interested in her. She is wary enough to regard with some suspicion his offer to mix her a drink in his room, but what follows is one of the stranger sequences in the annals of animated film: a nuanced, awkward seduction, graphically rendered yet immensely touching, between two lost souls. Their physical nakedness is matched by their emotional nakedness. Thewlis’s line readings are resonant, beseeching, and so are Leigh’s. Lisa has a poetic fragility in this sequence, never more so than when she slowly sings, almost in a hush, Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” She turns it into a soulful anthem. 

“Anomalisa” began as a 2005 play, written by Kaufman under the pseudonym Francis Fregoli, and staged only twice with live orchestration by Carter Burwell for his “Theater of the New Ear” sound-play project. A Kickstarter campaign financed the film, and if you sit through the end credits, you’ll find 1,070 names listed for “special thanks.” The stage material is immeasurably enhanced in its stop-motion incarnation.

The puppets ambulate with a thick grace, as if they were pressing through tide pools, and their faces are sectioned as interchangeable masks, with the joints between the upper and lower halves visible. The effect is a creepy plasticity that points up the characters’ mutated states of mind, especially in a dream sequence in which Michael’s anxieties become truly Fregoli-infested.

That dream sequence worried me for a while, because it looked as if the film was morphing into the sort of loopy phantasmagoria for which Kaufman has an unfortunate weakness. His 2008 directorial debut, “Synecdoche, New York,” was borderline unwatchable, but even his standout successes, like his script for “Being John Malkovich,” had a few too many metaphysical zigzags. “Anomalisa,” ironically, is perhaps his most human achievement. Perhaps because of the arduousness of the animation process required to bring them to life, using puppets rather than actors (except, of course, in voice-over) frees Kaufman to focus on what really matters in the characters’ lives, without a lot of curlicues.

Kaufman once told Charlie Rose on his TV show that “I have this very adverse reaction to Hollywood romances. They’ve been very damaging to me growing up.” “Anomalisa” is a kind of corrective to what Kaufman perceives as the damages of happy-faced Hollywood, and yet it shares some of that same movieland sunniness – at least as an unattainable ideal. We know that Michael’s instant infatuation with Lisa, for whom he vows to leave his wife, is not built to last. We know his almost manic high will be followed by a deep despondency. But these disappointments don’t falsify Michael’s ache for transcendence. His downfall is that he knows too well what his limitations are. The professional helper is resigned to helplessness. Grade: A- (Rated R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, and language.)

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