Depressed customer service expert turned revered author Michael Stone invites the homely, shy customer service representative Lisa into his hotel room for a night cap. She had just driven in from Akron, Ohio with her pretty co-worker Emily in order to hear Michael’s presentation he is going to be giving the following day. She is a big fan of his book. Michael Stone had just flown in from Los Angeles where he lives with his wife and son who likes to dress up as a pirate. His presentation is taking place in Cincinnati.
Lisa has a scar next to her right eye. She usually covers it with her hair. When Michael asks to kiss her there on her scar, she is befuddled. She is unsure of why he has asked her to come to his room. “Everyone always likes Emily best,” she says constantly. “Emily is a princess.” She has little self-confidence and believes she has little to offer when it comes to romance or love, but Michael has felt something unbearable ever since he heard her voice. He tells her that she is extraordinary. Probably never having heard someone say that about herself, she asks why. Michael is not quite sure yet, it’s just obvious to him that she is.
Ever since 1999’s Being John Malkovich, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has been considered one of the most creative minds working on the cusp of Hollywood. He has since crafted such bewilderingly whimsical, overwhelmingly honest, and unapologetically self-aware masterpieces as 2002’s Adaptation, 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and 2008’s Synecdoche, New York (his directorial debut). Even his more minor crafts such as Human Nature and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind are dripping with originality.
Anomalisa–which he funded through a Kickstarter campaign–is his second directorial effort and his seventh film to date, and it is definitely one of his best. The stop-motion drama which he co-directed and co-wrote with first-timer Duke Johnson is a deep and thoughtful piece, covering the same ground he has covered in the past–loneliness, self-acceptance, and what it means to be human–but with a very unique perspective. We follow the depressed customer service expert Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) through a single-day business trip where we experience his struggle to connect with people. He is unhappy with his marriage and even has some lukewarm feelings towards his five-year-old son. This is due to his lost affection towards them. Sure, he may have once found his wife to special, but has since become bored with her, sickened even. They have become lost within the mass of strangers, this loss expressed through the voices of every single individual within the film besides that of himself sounding identical (the voice of Tom Noonan), even the women. There is one other who sounds different, and he notices it even from down the hall within his hotel room. This is where we meet Lisa.
Lisa is voiced beautifully by Jennifer Jason Leigh, a performance that reminds me of Scarlett Johansson’s outstanding work as the sentient operating system Samantha in Her. It’s lively, pleasant to the ear, emotive, and soul-crushingly human. Performances such as this are the ones that are bringing more respect towards voice-actors. We often forget that they are performances too, and when given the right amount of emotion by a capable actor, they can be as impressive as any live-action role. During Lisa’s visit to Michael’s room, Michael asks her to keep talking, just to say whatever comes to her mind. “Tell me everything,” he says, and we listen.
Kaufman is a rare entity. A screenwriter who is just as valuable to the overall product as the director is, often overreaching his directors. His scripts are so original and unique that he has created his own cinematic identity and language even before he began actually crafting the movies himself as director, something only a few other screenwriters have accomplished. Anomalisa’s screenplay is one of his strongest. I was reminded of the work of Quentin Tarantino–another director whose writing often takes front stage over his direction–and his ability to make even the simplest, ordinary conversations riveting. One of the most memorable monologues in film history is the conversation between Vincent Vega and Jules as they eat breakfast in a diner, talking about Jules’ disassociation with pork and various religious opinions in Pulp Fiction. How about the Dogs’ discussion over the morality of tipping in Reservoir Dogs? The masterful scene in Anomalisa between Michael and his cab driver can hold its own against either of those scenes.
Through all of the scenes of simple conversation, there is also a sentimental beauty and emotion at the center of his screenplay. Who knew a rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” could make me cry? Michael and Lisa’s prolonged dialogue within the hotel room is compelling in the simplicity of the words and the complexity of the emotions. At a point, as Michael and Lisa lie on the end of the bed, Michael kissing Lisa’s forehead and cheek every few beats, we listen to Lisa describe her day from the moment she woke up to her run-in with Michael, and it’s damming how powerful it comes off. There’s also a deep and unsettling anger within the core of Kaufman’s story, but it’s better not to explain for the film benefits from knowing little about this aspect. You’ll notice it when you see the film. It’s electrifying.
Yes, there is nudity, as the MPAA has clearly stated, and there is in fact a sex scene. This is where the direction from Kaufman and Johnson really shows its prowess. These are puppets, and one’s mind may turn to the memory of the two marionette figures’ explicit–and quite hilarious–sex scene from Team America: World Police, but Kaufman and Johnson confront it with sensitivity and compassion, delivering a kinetic and intimate portrait of the connection between two lonely souls.
The puppets used throughout the film are clearly puppets. Their faces are divided in the middle by a line connecting the face plates, and you can see wear the face overlaps with the rest of the head. Whether this was a conscious decision made by Kaufman and Johnson, I don’t know, but it gives the film an unsettling undertone. The ingenious decision for the use of a singular voice also helps to create this. It feels almost as if everyone is after Michael, after Lisa, or after you. The constant reminder that these figures are puppets isn’t nearly as difficult to swallow as you’d expect. At one point, you even begin to forget this is an animation. I read in an interview with Kaufman and Johnson that they took a lot of inspiration for lighting and such from live-action films, in order to give it a more live-action feel. That may have helped, but I think that played a rather minor role. This is a story that most people wouldn’t expect to be animated, which is something that Japanese animation masters such as Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata have been taking advantage of for many, many years. If you are someone wondering why this wasn’t just live-action, why do people still paint self-portraits? There’s a truth to the way animation can reflect our beliefs and opinions, possibly more insightfully than live-action. These puppets become human at a point, with brains, nerves, personalities, red, warm blood, and beating, aching hearts.