It’s a Charlie Kaufman film, so it should be no surprise that Anomalisa playfully considers our beliefs and expectations. And yet it manages to offer up an experience even hardened cinema-goers will not expect. Given the endless possibilities afforded in a CGI age, it is a shame that animation is so frequently used in the service of robots hitting each other. Anomalisa is the antidote to all that; a subtle, slow story about human desire and the difficulty of connection, it is perfect for anyone who struggles with the meaning of life.
Adapted from Kaufman’s own 2005 play, it covers roughly a day in the life of Michael Stone, customer service guru, author and inspirational speaker; think Paul McKenna crossed with Malcolm Gladwell. We meet Michael flying in to Cincinnati, where he will spend a night at a nice but unremarkable hotel, before giving a convention speech the following morning espousing good sales practice. His professional persona is revealed to us as a sham; he is wracked with doubt and guilt about his job, his personal life (including romances past, present and future) and his value as a human. Michael goes about the routine tasks involved with travel and work, but his sanity is collapsing. He then becomes involved with Lisa, another guest at the hotel; she spikes within him emotions he has not felt for years.
Oh yes, and he and everyone around him are puppets.
I add this not (just) as a flippant afterthought, but because when watching Anomalisa, you will completely forget that what you are seeing is frame-by-frame animation (conducted exquisitely by co-director Duke Johnson & his team at Starburns Industries). In the time of 3D-obsessed multiplexes, IMAX and virtual reality, the word ‘immersive’ has come to connote ‘large’, when what it actually means is ‘to engage wholly or deeply’. By giving care to replicate humanity in every glance, every muscle movement, this is what Anomalisa does. There are flinches of the cheeks that hold more truth than entire blockbuster franchises.
As a child I used to pore over the cake books of English actress-turned chef Jane Asher, in awe of their colour and shape, my mouth actually watering. What I loved (although I couldn’t have said this then) was that they were at once fantastical, extravagant creations, and yet also real, actual cakes that could be made with the accompanying recipes. This is the pleasure of Anomalisa; it is the world of puppets that has been created for our enjoyment, and yet it is the world of humans too – you will see more of yourself here than in most other films.
Kaufman was concerned early doors about whether the play, with the immediacy of performance and humour of the actors shouting these lines at each other, would translate to screen; these concerns are soon allayed in a film that shows as well as tells. All of the faces bar Michael and Lisa are identical, and all voiced with the soothing tones of Tom Noonan; this is never stated or explained, but allowed to soak into our consciousness, much as we experience most ideas in life. There are special touches too, such as the name of the hotel – Hotel Fregoli – after the delusion that different people are actually one changing figure.
For such a simple narrative, it is impressively captivating, perhaps more than Kaufman’s other films. It silenced a raucous audience at the LFF secret screening in October, before two artfully-crafted laughter valves released the tension. One, featuring Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’, is as poignant and then funny as you could hope for. There’s more: say ‘puppet sex scene’ to most cinephiles and they will recall the hilarity of Team America’s gravity-defying gymnastics. There is equally memorable figurine fornication here, but for entirely different, extremely touching reasons. The voices of David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh (continuing her very welcome career resurgence) fill every line with human inflection and feeling.
The main criticism of Anomalisa will be familiar to those who know Kaufman’s work; that he infuses his stories with so much of himself that they become solipsistic. There is a difficulty in reconciling Michael Stone as an everyperson figure with his casual but persistent misogyny towards the women who are bit-parts in his Very Important Philosophical Considerations – the worry is that the film also considers them as such. A welcome note of uncertainty in the ending, though, leaves it open to interpretation as to who the true centre of the story is – and whether or not we are the centre of our own. You don’t get that with Punch and Judy.
Check out the trailer, see the film, and get in touch in the comments or at @dreamdepends with your thoughts – is Anomalisa a puppet masterpiece? Or can you see all the strings?