'Anomalisa' Is A Charlie Kaufman Movie Featuring Puppets. Yes, It's Weird
A guy who thinks everyone's the same meets a gal who's different. That could be the TV listing for Charlie Kaufman's extraordinary new film and latest weirdness, Anomalisa.
But that thumbnail description doesn't get at the weird, and the weird in this film is prodigious.
Start with the fact that in a world that looks otherwise real and natural, the leading man — motivational speaker Michael Stone — and all the folks around him are puppets, which are animated in stop-motion.
And except for Michael, they not only look the same — think crash-test dummies with different clothes and hairstyles — but they sound the same, too. His seatmate on the plane, the cabbie who picks him up at the airport, Michael's wife on the phone, his 5-year-old son, every staffer at his hotel, the characters in a movie on TV, an ex-girlfriend he gets in touch with — everyone.
Kaufman's Being John Malkovich spent an hour or so building up to a scene full of Malkoviches, all with that actor's face and cadences. This film, co-directed by Kaufman and Duke Johnson, starts there, and builds from a cacophony of voices (that are all Tom Noonan's voice) to a series of vignettes featuring Noonan-voiced characters so that by the time Michael is ensconced at the Fregoli Hotel, you're pretty fully in his world.
Calling the hotel the Fregoli, by the way, is an obscure, but very cool joke. The Fregoli delusion is the name of a psychiatric condition in which sufferers believe all the people around them are really incarnations of just one person, who is tormenting them.
Michael doesn't actually believe that, but he does see people as interchangeably unremarkable, and the film lets you see them that way too, even as it's making the unremarkable things they're doing, visually arresting — because, after all, they are puppets.
Michael for instance, engages in puppet showering, puppet profanity, puppet nudity and puppet hallucinations (where his jaw starts clacking and his face comes off in pieces as he looks in the mirror). It's in the middle of that hallucination that he hears something in the hallway that takes him utterly by surprise: a woman's voice, but more than that, a different voice.
Lisa, voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh. In a world of same, she's an anomaly — Anomalisa. Michael excitedly runs down the hallway, knocking on doors to no avail until, behind one, he hears her voice again, and invites her (and her roommate as an afterthought) to join him for a drink.
Michael is smitten, and Lisa is too. And that will lead to puppet sex, and puppet smoking after sex, and all manner of other things that would make Anomalisa intriguing to watch even if novelty were all it had going for it.
But what's fascinating is how the things that make the film different are the very things that make it emotionally engaging. David Thewlis' lonely stammer as Michael, Jennifer Jason Leigh's heartbreaking insecurity as Lisa, have a kind of universality when wedded to expressions on plastic figures you quite forget are plastic. And that lets filmmaker Kaufman tap into an existential loneliness most films can only hint at.
In Anomalisa, he's doing precisely what his characters are — reaching out, searching for a connection. And for 90 minutes in the theater, he finds it.