I've opened almost every single one of my recent reviews with an overview of the auteur who wrote or directed the movie in question; my girlfriend also playfully derides me for over-, or under-, valuing a movie based on who brought it to life. But to me, there's no way better way to choose what to see than looking at the resume of the creative mind behind the curtain. And more than any other writer, Charlie Kaufman is the kind of genius who demands your two hours.
With Anomalisa, he's dipping into animation for the first time. Not because he wanted to include dragons or robots or talking dogs, but because the medium (stop-motion, to be precise) has a closeness and a specificity that real life can't always capture. It's the perfect choice for this script, which began as a "sound play" a decade ago and is probably unlike anything you've ever seen, or heard, before.
The story is sparse (but means a lot, so maybe save this review for later if you haven't seen it yet): Michael (David Thewlis) is a customer-service guru who's famous in his field but slowly coming apart in reality. He visits Cincinnati (home of a zoo-sized zoo) for a conference and almost instantly starts trying to cheat on his wife. He meets up with a woman from his past, drinking heavily the entire time, and eventually finds himself in the company of Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a slightly frumpy woman from Akron who worships Michael. A brief, awkward, and very real love affair follows.
And oh, did I mention that every other character in the movie is voiced by Tom Noonan? At first it seems like all the woman just have manly voices, but it turns out that Michael hears (and sees) all people as exactly the same. Everyone, that is, except for Lisa.
This isn't a magical revelation that Michael voices, or a plot element; it's something we deduce with our senses and, more subtly, through his interactions with Lisa. He views her as his last, desperate hope, one he flings himself at despite a good deal of awkwardness. But we know he's also a sick man; he consistently visualizes the removal of the front part of his skull, and he openly professes potential psychological problems on several occasions. But he's rich, and he's successful, and he's pursuing an achievable woman. So all of his failings are charming, and all of his ramblings are accepted with minimal concern, and he's allowed the sort of leeway that only wealthy, desirable white men receive.
It's almost impossible to review this movie without picking it apart, piece by piece. In a way, it's like going to a therapist: the value is in addressing the elements out loud (or on paper) and rearranging them to fit. Which, in a way, mirrors Anomalisa's meticulous stop-motion animation. Every step the characters take down a hallway is slow and precise; every movement is captured. Critics have called it "the most human movie of the year" because Kaufman and Johnson depict moments you couldn't capture with real actors. You couldn't hold on two people having sex like they do and make every second mean so much; it's an incredible achievement.
Even more so because there is a seamy underbelly to all of it. Michael is sympathetic on the service but practiced in his methods; he's a man who gave up struggling against these particular demons a long time ago. We're given the impression that this chase happens often, one that ends with the return of his conquest to the same sameness he's come to expect. It stands to reason that his targets are also very similar, desperate women who preemptively expect to be let down. Is that predatory, selfish? Is he nothing less than sad, hopeless monster?
Or is Lisa also representative for what happens to the person on the other side of the bed? For she—who Leigh brilliantly brings to life as a sweet, caring woman who would do anything for happiness—isn't crushed when Michael doesn't stick to his drunken ravings. Rather than feel used or discarded, she's delighted. She doesn't quite realize what we do, that she was being pursued by a empty husk on the brink of collapse. But she also doesn't care; it brought her what she's been pursuing for a long time. And maybe she senses that this hero of hers, this genius who has conquered the world they both inhabit, is even more fucked up than she is. Without fully realizing it, maybe he's making their lives a little sweeter.
That's admittedly a very optimistic interpretation. Before he meets Lisa, he's begging an ex-girlfriend to come back to him, causing a scene in a restaurant, stumbling drunkenly into a sex toy store without even realizing. Afterwards, he's giving his son a toy from that very same store and blowing off his wife. So no, he's probably not a saint in disguise. But Kaufman and Johnson chose animation for a reason, and the sex between Michael and Lisa is visually tender and backed with swelling, this-is-special music. There's something there, even if it's only a moment. And maybe some—or most—people only need moments like those to keep them going. It brought Michael some clarity, and it left Lisa with a sense of worth.
I literally just figured that out as I was typing. That's what makes Charlie Kaufman's work so wonderful: it's almost impossible to process right away. The time-bending of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the plot-mirrors-plot twists and turns of Adaptation, the utter weirdness of Being John Malkovich; it all demands rumination and revisiting to really sink in. He uses ideas like identity, memory, and the artificiality of what you're seeing on screen (or stage) to illuminate concepts that would jarring (or heavy-handed) otherwise.
Short of the nigh-indecipherable Synecdoche, New York, Anomalisa may be the toughest to wrap your head around. But it's also very funny (mostly in Thewlis's interactions with every Noonan character, specifically the hotel manager and Michael's son) and tragically earnest. I can't call it "sympathy" that you feel for Michael, but Kaufman finds a way to keep a degenerate womanizer on the right side, or at least the human side, of your heart for 90 minutes. That's an unfathomable accomplishment for anyone but a genius.