With each Charlie Kaufman film – and I make no distinction between those that he has written and those that he has both written and directed – there lies a central question: what, exactly, is he getting at? Each of Kaufman’s screenplays examines the collective psyche of westerners (more often than not, Americans), filtered through a male protagonist, and does so while ensconcing that character in extreme, entertainingly quirky scenarios: gameshow hosts serve as CIA stooges, a theatre director’s life becomes a play, a man can access the mind of John Malkovich, and so on. Each scenario serves as a hook, but however weird things get it’s always abundantly clear that Kaufman is a writer who is primarily obsessed with people, and how they operate and interact with one another. Each new work highlights different human frailties and foibles, pointing out the absurdities of his well-observed characters and the absurdities of the modern world around them.
Anomalisa, Kaufman’s latest film, is a droll, stop-motion comedy drama that he has co-directed with animator Duke Johnson, the pair securing funding through a Kickstarter campaign. It’s set for the most part in a Cincinatti hotel called The Fregoli, and the story follows an unhappy, lonely customer service guru named Michael Stone (David Thewlis), who is in town for a night prior to delivering a keynote speach at a conference. Michael has become distanced from his wife and son, and we soon discover that his alienation has extended beyond the confines of his home: he perceives everyone he sees to be identical. The majority of parts in Anomalisa – male and female – are therefore voiced by one actor, Tom Noonan, because we are seeing things almost entirely from Michael’s perspective, while additionally the faces of these characters appear to be interchangeable, a move that recalls the numerous talking Malkoviches in Being John Malkovich.
It would appear that Kaufman is having fun at the expense of those who work in customer-facing roles, even though it’s the main character who is perceiving them as no-name automatons; we even see the joins where each person’s face can be taken off, the suggestion being perhaps that people are afraid to be themselves any more and keep their true nature hidden (witness Michael’s own horror on the one occasion he lets his mask slip, as it were). Stone – an expert in customer service, lest we forget – is a curmudgeon, and his attitude to the various workers he comes across during the story means he’s not particularly likeable, but perhaps we can forgive his tired exasperation to an extent. First he comes across a taxi driver at the airport who wants to make small talk and doesn’t pick up on Michael’s cues for silence; then a hotel receptionist freakishly never breaks eye contact while checking him in. The person he speaks to on the phone when he orders room service robotically runs through a long description of the food Michael orders, even though it isn’t necessary.
As the main character becomes more and more concerned with questioning his own life, identity, previous love affairs and current level of happiness, he begins to experience a gradual meltdown (or, perhaps more accurately, I should say his condition worsens); we subsequently see a lot of action on screen – some of it bizarre, some of it not so bizarre – that is presumably taking place in Michael’s head, often signposted by the use of excessive backlighting (and here the hotel setting, with all its artificial lighting and big windows, comes into its own). Michael’s evening features an awkward encounter with an old flame and an odd visit to a sex toy shop, before the film hoodwinks the viewer into thinking they’re watching a straightforward love story, of sorts. Stone hears a woman talking in the corridor outside his room whose voice is different to everyone else; this is Lisa, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who is in town for the conference and staying at the same hotel. Michael is instantly smitten, and sets about wooing his fellow guest. Whether the sexual encounter that occurs between the two – which is surprisingly graphic and realistic, for an animated film – actually takes place or not depends on the viewer’s interpretation of events. Kaufman offers a few small clues that tantalisingly suggest it’s all a figment of Michael’s imagination: why else would Lisa have a scar in the same place as the antique Japanese sex doll Stone purchases? (That’s the same sex doll that later…um…well, I won’t divulge.)
Johnson’s animation skills are impressive, while the work of the three actors is also worth a mention; Thewlis is a master of exasperated annoyance, and his Michael will remind anyone who has seen Mike Leigh’s Naked of that film’s gobby, nihilistic anti-hero Johnny. (Jeniffer Jason) Leigh plays a far more likeable character in Lisa, and does a good job of emphasising her vulnerability and self-doubt, particularly in the build up to sex. Noonan, you might argue, has the toughest job of all, given that he has to play everyone else. Most of his characters are all distinct from one another, due to size, clothing, haircut and so on, though the actor’s voice never wavers. Yet Anomalisa is most notable for Kaufman’s enigmatic writing, which will at the very least keep you thinking about the film after it has finished, even though you’ll probably want to forget his main character as quickly as possible. Flights of fancy and strange occurrences are Kaufman’s invitations to try and figure out what he is getting at, though he remains equally adept with the more straightforward, crowdpleasing stuff, incorporating humour that’s actually funny and penning convincing relationships, too. He’s still one of the most intriguing writers working today.
Directed by: Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson.
Written by: Charlie Kaufman.
Starring: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan.
Cinematography: Joe Passarelli.
Editing: Garret Elkins.
Music: Carter Burwell.
Running Time: 89 minutes.