Charlie Kaufman is one of America’s preeminent writers of existentialism and nearly all other forms of humanity. Anomalisa is another example of Kaufman’s look into the droll life of a man, but with his usual quirks and outlooks on love and infidelity added in. With this film being served to the audiences in Kaufman’s first use of animation, there is sure to be some worry among his fans on whether his style can be translated in a different visual medium. It’s safe to say that being lost in this droll, ugly world has never looked so beautiful.
Anomalisa, co-directed by Kaufman and Duke Johnson, formerly a producer and animator of Adult Swim’s Frankenhole making the jump to something a little more mature, is an animated delight set in a world without joy. The story is about a middle aged man, Michael Stone, a successful motivational speaker and author on a road trip towards another gig to talk to the masses. He then stumbles upon the titular Lisa, a completely different woman upon all the other people that he is surrounded by in his life. Over the course of the swift 90 minutes, we watch a connection between two people that is more organic and believable than most relationships we see in the media that involve two real people. Infatuation and love hasn’t felt this real in a long time.
David Thewlis voices Stone, the central Kaufman-esque character that is present in all of his work. Stone is dissatisfied with the life around him and wants to make some sort of change. Thewlis brings an effortless charm and exhaustion to the role of Michael Stone and his casting is near-perfect. The problem and strength of Kaufman’s stories are his characters. Each person in the story has become a trope and it hurts what could otherwise be a film without them. On the other hand, without these tropes, we would lose what has made Kaufman such a prolific storyteller. His characters became tropes because of how effective they are. Thewlis and co. are able to elevate this trope into something more.
Jennifer Jason Leigh is also a treat as Lisa, the person with which Thewlis’ character revolves around for a majority of the film. Leigh does wonders with a character that would easily be described as meek and sky, but she gives her character a sense of humanity that ties the movie together. I also can’t forget to mention the fantastic Tom Noonan as everyone else in the story. It’s a genius move by Kaufman to cast Noonan, the basic everyman, as a taxi driver, a waitress, an old girlfriend; he’s able to convey the mundane and humane in each person without resorting to only one of the previous emotions.
I can’t praise the film without mentioning the beautiful animation from Duke Johnson. Each shot is gorgeous in its simplicity of framing and colour palette. How much of that is contributed by Johnson or cinematographer Joe Passarelli, I am not sure, but a mix of the stop-motion and cinematography of each shot is able to register the patience and dedication to each frame that is worked on. Not since The Wind Rises has an animated film looked those terrific.
By the time Anomalisa had ended, I wished we had more with our characters. While I’m sure this is the point, I still found it disappointing to enjoy these bittersweet moments with everyone in the story and by the time everything was over, I still left unsatisfied. Lisa still feels like an enigma when the credits roll and it comes to the detriment of the picture. As one half of the main focus of the film, Lisa still felt like a mystery and she lacked any emotional resonance when everything was said and done. What had she learned or understood? The film doesn’t care to go into any detail.
While Kaufman may have given the short end of the stick to the female half of the central romance the short end of the stick (and it’s truly a shame), Anomalisa still packs one hell of a punch for the viewer. Each person is given an outlook and viewpoint into who they are and why they are the way they are. The film may come across as slight, but it would be too easy to brush away the experiences each character has had. For an animated film, people and their stories haven’t seemed this real in quite some time.