'Anomalisa' transcends artificiality of animation

Puppet-like characters crave connection in quirky, heartbreaking tale from Charlie Kaufman

Thursday January 14, 2016 04:00 am EST

Cinematic surrealist Charlie Kaufman has a fascination with miniatures. A multiple Oscar nominee as a screenwriter, Kaufman envisioned such sights as the half-size offices of Being John Malkovich and a warehouse featuring a scale model of New York City — including a little version of the warehouse itself — in his directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York.

So it's no surprise that his sensibility would mesh so well with the puppet-like players of his new animated film, Anomalisa. Partially funded through a Kickstarter campaign and co-directed by Kaufman and animator Duke Johnson, Anomalisa renders a tale that's both jarringly strange and emotionally accessible. You'll be amazed at how much you can empathize with its artificial actors.

David Thewlis voices Michael Stone, a depressed family man and the author of an improbably successful book about customer service titled How May I Help You Help Them? The film follows his visit to Cincinnati to address a conference, and the weary way he interacts with people, takes calls from his family, and considers reaching out to an old flame suggests he has difficulty connecting to others.

But maybe the other people are the problem. The audience notices that all the other characters speak in the same voice (courtesy of Tom Noonan in a superbly subtle series of performances) and have the same basic face. This isn't laziness or an accident on the part of the animators. From Michael's point of view, he's the only distinct person in a world where everyone else is essentially the same.

Anomalisa finds deadpan, Coen Brothers-style humor as Michael encounters cab drivers and service workers overly easy to please. He's completely thrown for a loop, however, when he meets a woman named Lisa, who has a unique voice and face (provided by Jennifer Jason Leigh). It's like a literalization of the idea that someone you fall in love with seems like the only other person in the world.

Possessing minor facial scars and poor self-esteem, Lisa shyly blossoms under Michael's puppyish attentions. At one point, she sings an a cappella version of a 1980s pop hit, infused with such vulnerability to make it achingly sad. Given the diametrically opposite nature of Leigh's work here and her ferocious turn in The Hateful Eight, she deserves to have a Hollywood comeback that sticks.

The flesh-and-blood actors serve as anchors for the animation team's engrossing work. Anomalisa makes a powerful case that animation needn't be confined to family-friendly comedy and fantasy fare. Kaufman and Johnson use the stop-motion format to draw the viewer's attention to the kind of mundane activities that we take for granted, like shaving or lugging suitcases through airports.

The film transcends its own artificiality, however, with a delicate, drawn-out sex sequence (which reportedly took six months to shoot) that may be the most tender, naturalistic such scene in all movies of 2015. Anomalisa's cast, despite being created with 3-D printers, never come across as anything less than human.

Anomalisa. 4 stars. Directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson. Stars David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh. Rated R. Opens Jan. 15. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

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