Anomalisa is the story of a middle-aged married man, who is unhappy, lonely, and desperate for human connection, all told through meticulous stop-motion animation. Everyone he meets, everyone he knows, including his wife and son, is given exactly the same voice (afforded pitch-perfect monotony by Tom Noonan). While staying in an out-of-town hotel on a business trip, he encounters Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an admirer whose differing, seemingly anomalous voice provokes a romantic infatuation. This description may suggest that Anomalisa is something of a love story. This is far from being the case, and the film is all the better for it.
Written and co-directed (alongside stop-motion specialist Duke Johnson) by Charlie Kaufman, the script bears all hallmarks of his idiosyncratic style. His films, notable examples of which include Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, are characterised by an intellectual neuroticism, filtered through a framework of inventive postmodernism. In this regard, Anomolisa is no exception. What distinguishes it from his previous efforts, however, is a genuine tenderness, an emotional honesty that humanises the characters even as their puppetry remains conspicuous.
This is by no means a film for everyone; the humour is black and bleak, the main character is relentlessly unsympathetic. His relationship with Lisa is an uneasy mix of the romantic and the predatory. Moments of genuine tenderness (most notably a remarkably honest sex scene) dovetail with surreal and postmodern flourishes. So dream-like is the tone of the film that the audience is not led to recognise a (really quite surreal) dream sequence until we are halfway through.
Anomalisa both cultivates and resists interpretation. It is, inherently, a film of contradiction. Kaufman has created a world made of stop-motion puppets that is simultaneously truer-to-life than most live action fare out there, while also facilitating the kind of flexible reality in which a multiplicity of characters have the same voice and face. The puppets themselves are eerily realistic, capable of mimicking the entire gambit of human expression, but at the same time are brazen in their construction (made of two separately operated face plates, the viewer is constantly aware of the construct of what they are watching).
While the fairly relentless cynicism may prove too much for some, there is a great amount to enjoy. As sharp and cutting in its comedy as it is in its pathos, Anomalisa proves an intelligent, original venture, and the director’s most emotionally astute film to date. Much like the film’s puppet protagonist, you will leave the cinema questioning exactly what it means to be human.