“I don’t want to lose you.”
Every so often a film comes along that, whilst watching, you feel an overwhelming sense that you are witnessing greatness. Normally I shy away from labeling anything in the arts as haunting because the word itself is overused to the point of stripping away its worth. Not with Anomalisa though, a stop-motion feature whose story illustrates the vulnerabilities and achingly raw human emotions of every day life through realistic puppets. As the latest picture from the genius Charlie Kaufman, the man reinforces the notion that he is our best modern storyteller. His films are certainly complex by design, but at the center of each movie is a simple observation of life. In Anomalisa, Kaufman has crafted a singular tale of being transported from a mundane existence to one with significance and measure, and again he delivers one of the year’s best pictures.
Michael Stone (David Thewlis) travels to Cincinnati for business. He’s an author on the subject of customer service, and while there he’s to speak at a conference. Michael is a castaway, unable to find a connection with those around him. He’s sad, and lonely, and most of all detached. Then comes Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) – an anomaly and positive disruptive force – who Michael is immediately drawn to. Anomalisa stresses the importance of auditory recognition, highlighting Michael’s disinterest by having every character outside of him and Lisa be voiced by Tom Noonan. This is a little love story, but even more than the romance between these two loners, the film pieces together with strikingly detailed accuracy just how vital relationships are. Anomalisa takes us there, from the pits of despair to the heights of hope.
Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson handle these extremely broad topics with clear precision. They know the story they want to tell, how they are going to convey it on-screen, and what every part means. Few films have such depth, and almost none match the levels of sincerity through which this is told. Kaufman is a once in a generation talent with an inexplicable ear for the written word. He pens scripts with vindication and intimacy, and the interactions feel so damn real that you forget you’re watching puppets. Michael and Lisa are people. They are alive, and by way of marvelous gesticulations from the animators and careful sculpting, Thewlis and Leigh are able to give performances that rival anything you’ll see this year. That especially goes for Leigh’s portrayal of Lisa. She’s clumsy, damaged, and at times both a defeatist and an optimist. We believe in her, and in Michael, and the effect of their fleeting romance on each other’s life. Such specificity and validation is hard to come by.
Anomalisa is a film that has been made with an endearing amount of care. The sets are impeccable, the directing graceful, and the divine musical score a perfect accompaniment to such a grounded story. Kaufman has imaginative ingenuity, and somehow he has written Anomalisa to be an often surprisingly funny film, and one that cuts to the core of the circle of life. Maybe the movie lacks a fitting coda for the unshakable moments that precede it. Yet that’s because, as Kaufman knows, life isn’t a symphony. We can orchestrate all we want, but sometimes things are just out of our control. It takes acuity to realize that, and a daring sense of humility to share. The film reminds you, and me, and anyone who watches it that life is worth living. And that sadness is often carry-on baggage we choose to travel around with instead of leaving it at the gate. And lastly, that happiness is tantamount luggage to its partner in sorrow. We still get to choose which one we carry even when things are out of our hands. Anomalisa is touching, elevated cinema, and a film that will have you marveling at its complexity done so simplistically.
“Your voice is like magic.”
Rating: 5 out of 5