In Alex Garland’s riveting metaphysical exploration of man’s relationship to machinery Ex Machina, Oscar Isaac’s character Caleb states of his A.I. Ava, “The real test is to show you she is a robot. Then see if you still feel she has consciousness.” A similar theme blooms in Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa, a stop-motion animated drama that explores a day in the midst of a customer service man’s midlife crisis.
The artifice of the animation is as breathtaking as it is occasionally distracting. And purposefully so. A synthesis of smooth surfaces and crude crevices create a vibrant visual tapestry that is at once life-like and yet, pursuant to Kaufman’s intoxicatingly cerebral goals, reminds you at every turn that this is not indeed life as we experience it. That these are indeed puppets. To illuminate the connection to Garland’s science fiction opus, Kaufman has similarly shown us figures that are artificial and injected them with all the insecurities, tics and foibles of humanity. He’s given us robots and made us believe they are human. So properly so that we forget that what we are watching is tiny figurines micro-managed one minuscule movement at a time. To get an idea of exactly how minuscule those movements were, animators were responsible for filming only two seconds a day (or 48 frames).
Never one shy to wring out his neurosis to broad daylight, Charlie Kaufman has created perhaps his most personal film yet with Anomalisa. His top-down deconstruction of “midlife crises” is dripping with insecurities and Michael Stone (voiced crabbily by David Thewlis) is a very real, very human mouthpiece for Kaufman to broadcast his own internal struggle with the monotony of human relationships.
Michael is not your average Average Joe type but he very much fits a modern day archetype. Well dressed, respected by his peers, well to do. Just British enough to sound persnickety and dissatisfied. He’s the author of an apparently wide-read “How To” book for customer service. Tips of the trade and whatnot. Those who read it regularly report productivity up 90%. He’s a Belvedere Martini-chugging, cigarette-hounding grump, but no slouch professionally.
As Michael labors about the upscale hotel where he is to headline a conference, he encounters a host of people all sounding suspiciously alike. In calls, his wife, his ex-girlfriend, even his son all fit the same vocal mold. Each sounds identical. That’s because, well, they are. Aside from Thewlis’ Stone, everyone else is voiced by Tom Noonan. From women to children, taxi-drivers to bellhops, fangirls to fawning managers, every single character sounds exactly the same. Except for one person. Lisa.
The now Academy Award-nominated Jennifer Jason Leigh gives a tender, heartfelt performance as the shy, cautious beaux Lisa. Michael can’t puzzle through what is so immediately attractive about Lisa – who deems herself “not attractive” by conventional mean due to a mysterious scar over her left eye. Little does he know, he’s caught in a tractor beam by the anomaly that is her voice. Soon after meeting, Michael and Lisa share an intimate exchange. “I think you’re extraordinary,” Michael admits. “Why?” Lisa asks gingerly, almost ashamed that she has been noticed at all. “I don’t know yet,” Michael responds, genuinely perplexed, “It’s just obvious to me that you are.”
The interplay between these two is the heart and soul of the work and frequently shows extraordinary depth. Kaufman almost uses the film as a therapy session and insomuch as the film is a confession of sorts, he brings us to some really profound places. Places that waffle between being hilarious and heartbreaking. I don’t want to give away the goods, but I will report that you’ll blink away tears and work up a good chortle through the process of unpacking the anomaly of Anomalisa and that is exactly the rich film watching experience that going to the movies is made for.
Kaufman enlists Duke Johnson to co-direct for his stop motion experience and the effect is substantial. After a grueling three year process that involved utilizing 1261 faces, over a thousand props and costumes and 118,089 frames of film, Anomalisa is all-around arresting and quite simply gorgeous. That it is also perhaps the most grounded of Kaufman’s works helps tie it into this element of magical realism that has so often defined his pieces. Simply put, it earns a place among Kaufman’s greats; a work of art to be admired for years to come.
CONCLUSION: Charlie Kaufman finds new ways to stretch the imagination with stop-motion character study ‘Anomalisa’. A tender piece on insecurity and the mundanity of human relations, Kaufman’s latest mind-trip is as thought-provoking as it is tragic and hilarious.