David Thewlis voices Michael Stone in the animated stop-motion film Anomalisa.
photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures
Anomalisa ★★★ Now playing
In the opening shot of Anomalisa, Charlie Kaufman's return to film after 2008's divisive Synecdoche, New York, an airliner is framed against a majestic sunset. A cacophony of voices—passenger chatter, a flight attendant's recited instructions—surrounds us as the camera slowly pulls back to reveal our vantage point as that of neither god nor man, but of a puppet in another plane. It's a marvelous way of introducing us to Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson's stop-motion simulacrum of the modern world's most banal environments: airports, hotels, the Midwest.
This ambiguity of perspective carries through the rest of the one-of-a-kind animated drama, as Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a lonely British expat, moves through a Cincinnati populated by apparent nonentities who share the same androgynous facial features and speak in the same passive-aggressive monotone (all voiced by Tom Noonan).
Stone seems to be suffering from Fregoli syndrome (alluded to by the name of his hotel), the delusional belief that other people, including his wife, ex-lover and young son, are actually all the same person in disguise. Stone is a popular motivational speaker in the field of customer service, and the film is balanced somewhere between a bleak satire about the effects of consumer capitalism on our personalities and an equally bleak satire about the solipsism of white men in the throes of midlife crisis.
Next to Kaufman's previous work, Anomalisa is a minor effort that treads familiar thematic ground. Stone is yet another of the writer-director's self-obsessed sad sacks, at odds with dull, uncaring surroundings. The situational humor is largely superficial: We're all familiar with unctuous customer-service personnel, irritating cabbies and hard-to-use hotel keycards. And the fact that the film is set in 2005, the opening date of the short play on which it's based, means the pre-social-media jabs at consumer society might as well be about the 1950s.
However, the material is elevated by its singular execution; stop-motion animation is rescued from near-obsolescence to capture the surreal horrors of everyday life. The puppet characters have visible seams that run up their jawlines and across their eye sockets, giving them an uncanny sci-fi quality that undermines the generic cuteness Pixar has taught us to expect from 3-D animation. Originally conceived as a "sound play" without visual elements (with actors reading their lines from behind a desk), the addition of such an immersive animated world reinforces Stone's misanthropy to the detriment of the core concept's integrity. But the result is something with great potential, and one hopes others will recognize the medium's capabilities.
The talents of Kaufman, Johnson and animation team StarBurns Industries combine most effectively in the much-discussed hotel scene, in which Stone has a graphic sexual encounter with Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), one of many fans who have come to Cincinnati to hear him speak. Stone immediately becomes obsessed with Lisa upon hearing her voice: She doesn't sound like Tom Noonan! Kaufman clearly establishes that she is unattractive in every other way, from her uncultured habits to the scar on the side of her face—her sweetness is barely distinguishable from her pliability.
For one night, Stone’s narcissism and Lisa’s self-loathing complement each other. Their mutual seduction achieves an unstable balance between charm and discomfort that the rest of the film only approximates. Perhaps it's the obvious care with which their sad, inevitable tryst is animated and performed that brings out a rare moment of authentic realism. For a few minutes, we're not just watching a fable about male fantasy and consumerism, but also ordinary acts of love made strange.