CINEMA: Master of Puppets

By on January 19, 2016

Charlie Kaufman’s ‘Anomalisa’ searches for humanity through stop-motion figurines.

Michael (David Thewlis) and Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in ‘Anomalisa.’

Michael (David Thewlis) and Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in ‘Anomalisa.’

Michael Stone (David Thewlis), the protagonist of “Anomalisa,” is in many ways a very ordinary man. He may be successful in his field—the author of a popular how-to book on improving customer service—and he may get to stay in an upscale Cincinnati hotel room for his speech to a group of conventioneers. But he’s also vaguely dissatisfied with his marriage, and struggles with tiny frustrations and indignities, like a hotel room electronic key that doesn’t quite work.

Also, when he hears people talk, every voice sounds exactly the same. Also, he’s a puppet.

That latter point is not merely a figure of speech. Writer Charlie Kaufman and animator Duke Johnson have crafted “Anomalisa” as a world of stop-motion figurines—and if you’re familiar with the cinematic work of Charlie Kaufman, this kind of strange device shouldn’t be a surprise. This is, after all, the writer who invented a portal through which you could take over the life of a famous actor in “Being John Malkovich,” and posited a procedure through which unpleasant memories could be surgically removed in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” A mournful sense of disconnected, frustrated humanity permeates Kaufman’s work, so what better way to convey that than to make his characters not actually human?

That doesn’t mean that Michael Stone isn’t a fully realized character, albeit a sad and fairly pathetic one. Though married with a young son, Michael can’t stop himself from looking up Bella, an old girlfriend who lives in Cincinnati, and who still hasn’t fully recovered from Michael abruptly abandoning her for no apparent reason. And his perception of every person around him as having the same indistinguishable monotone voice (perfectly pitched by Tom Noonan) leads him to an impulsive desire to connect with Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a shy telephone customer service rep who is attending the conference to hear Michael speak—and whose own unique voice sounds to Michael something like salvation.

It would be easy to spend pages cataloguing merely how astounding “Anomalisa” is as a technical achievement. Kaufman and Johnson are meticulous about every mundane detail of Michael’s surroundings, right down to the roll of toilet paper in his hotel room bathroom with a first sheet shaped into a triangle. The character figures are animated with the same level of precision, capturing wonderfully telling gestures like Michael nervously drumming his fingers while awaiting Bella’s arrival in the hotel bar, or Bella getting her purse strap caught on the chair the first time she tries to pull it away, or Lisa constantly pulling her hair to cover a scar by her right eye. And it will be hard for any sex scene you see between living people to match the sweetly awkward authenticity of the encounter between Michael and Lisa.

But “Anomalisa” also proves to be much more than a gimmick, even a brilliantly-executed gimmick. It would be easy to dismiss Michael’s plight as the woe-is-me moaning of a privileged middle-aged white guy, and it may be almost too obviously ironic when Michael launches into his speech about respecting that “the customer is an individual.” But Kaufman makes it clear that Michael’s inability to distinguish between voices is a product of his own instant irritation with small talk and social niceties; as soon as he recognizes flaws and imperfections, everyone is tossed in his mind into the same drone of background noise. There’s something almost noble in the way Kaufman can recognize when someone’s unhappiness is entirely of their own making, yet still feel compassion for them.

Not surprisingly for Kaufman, there’s a density to the writing that doesn’t open itself up all at once, and almost certainly requires multiple viewings. There’s an extended nightmare sequence, the odd role of an antique Japanese sex automaton (and its possible connection to Lisa), and even Kaufman’s decision to set the events very specifically in 2005, including a framed portrait of George W. Bush on someone’s wall and Michael’s political rant in the middle of his speech. Those who have found Kaufman’s work deliberately opaque in the past aren’t likely to change their minds now, but there’s more to “Anomalisa” than tricks, whether literary or technical. He’s interested in showing that you have to be willing to see the individuality of human lives—even if you’re not actually looking at a human when you see it. PJH

ANOMALISA
.5
David Thewlis
Jennifer Jason Leigh
Tom Noonan
Rated R

160120Cinema-2orig

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