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Anomalisa, from Charlie Kaufman, tells a familiar story in an unusually inventive way

Michael (David Thewlis) and Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) find love in a hopeless place.
Michael (David Thewlis) and Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) find love in a hopeless place.
Paramount Animation / Starburns industries

As the last shot of Anomalisa pulls back, letting the light hit its puppet characters so you remember all over again that they're not made of flesh and bone, a disquieting feeling settles over the end credits. This film is something different, and beautiful, and achingly sad.

Rating


4


But for being such an innovative movie with the use of puppets in stop-motion animation, and for bearing some blisteringly pointed exchanges, Anomalisa is never all that surprising. In fact, the movie's most surprising aspect is that it rarely tries to subvert expectations, or even nudge them.

Despite being named for Jennifer Jason Leigh's wonderful Lisa, Anomalisa is ultimately a story about a self-involved man who's bored with his life, so he briefly flirts with something a little different in a desperate attempt to find a spark buried in the flat fog of his consciousness. It's a story we've seen, read, and heard many, many times before — though at least this time it's told in a startling, singular way.

Anomalisa is rendered in brilliant stop-motion animation, but its world is purposefully, suffocatingly average

Michael Stone (David Thewlis) is a middle-aged motivational speaker who specializes in customer service, but — irony of ironies — he can't actually connect to people. He's in Cincinnati for just one night, as the guest speaker of honor at a convention. He's tired, and he's bored.

And so Michael makes his way from the airport to the hotel and then groggily around the city in search of something, anything, to break up the monotony. As he trudges around his hotel room, we see him shed Michael Stone's tailored blazer to become just Michael, unremarkable in his aged, naked body. Every so often, his puppet jaw will unhinge, and he'll snap it back into place, impatient and exhausted.

The main conceit of Anomalisa sneaks up on you. For a good 20 minutes, absolutely nothing seems out of the ordinary with Michael's boring night. You might wonder why this story will be remarkable enough to make a movie at all.

And then it becomes immediately obvious: Everyone Michael talks to looks and sounds exactly the same.

Everyone, whether male or female, old or young, taxi driver or ex-girlfriend, has the same round face, the same flat, monotonous voice. The voice is the handiwork of Tom Noonan, whose acting for almost all the characters in Anomalisa is a marvel. Though you can hear his characters pushing at the constraints of Michael's limited viewpoint, voices lilting upward in polite conversations and flailing in frustration, Noonan keeps his voice steady, in the even-keeled tones of a particularly good customer service representative. He perfectly reflects Michael's boredom back at him, a frustrating facsimile of Michael's dulled outlook.

There are few writers better at capturing the banality of small talk than Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich), who also co-directed. He puts that skill to such good use in Anomalisa that it's almost alarming. As Michael fields one bland conversation after another, you're forced to wonder how many of your own day-to-day conversations are equally two-dimensional. You start to understand how Michael blends everyone's faces — even that of his wife and son — into the same vacuous mass.

It is, to put it mildly, unflattering.

The best thing Anomalisa does is make you fall in love with Lisa

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Once Anomalisa lulls viewers into Michael's stupor, it introduces Lisa (Leigh), a shy customer representative whose warmth immediately draws Michael into her orbit — not to mention the fact that she is not voiced by Noonan.

Lisa's voice is a siren call, echoing through the hotel halls and through Michael's brain like an electric jolt. Leigh's performance, equal parts hesitance and joyful optimism, is breathtaking. With Leigh guiding the way, and Kaufman and his co-director Duke Johnson framing Lisa in a way that often makes it seem like she exists under a halo of light, it's easy to understand why Michael would be so drawn to this woman.

Their romance is lovely. Even as you may continue to wonder about Michael's wife and kid back in Los Angeles, it's hard not to fall for Leigh's Lisa as deeply and as quickly as Michael does. Lisa and Michael stumble around each other, eager and willing to please.

To others, Lisa might have an unremarkable face (and she is, in fact, confused by Michael's attention, given the fact that she came to the conference with her flirtier blonde friend). But to Michael, and to us, after so long without seeing another face, Lisa is nothing short of a miracle.

The hotel transforms from an impersonal landing pad for professionals into a haven for co-conspirators. One astonishing, deeply intimate scene conveys how Anomalisa's meticulous design, from its puppet people to the sheets on Michael's hotel bed, finds endless possibilities in the mundane.

There's no doubt that Anomalisa is a beautiful film. But it's hard to tell what, exactly, it's trying to say.

When I walked away from Anomalisa, Anomalisa had trouble walking away from me. I knew I was moved, but when it came down it, I wasn't sure why. And ultimately, I've realized that the reason I couldn't connect to it like I wanted to — and why the brilliance of its execution struck me and then glanced right back off — is because as much as it sold the unique beauty of Lisa, it still failed to invest me in Michael's frustrations.

Despite taking such a deep, personal dive into Michael's mind, it is very hard to understand what, if anything, Anomalisa is thinking.

Michael is lonely, and bereft at the prospect of living a life without any nuance or spark to break through the monotony. That much is clear. But I'm still not sure whether the film finds his suffering noble or narcissistic — and clarifying that distinction would change it entirely.

Is Michael supposed to be a tragic figure, depressed beyond measure to the point that he can't connect with — or even properly see — anyone? Or is he, as The Verge's Emily Yoshida theorized, just a sociopath? Either way, watching him make all the pit stops you would predict from a discontented middle-aged man throughout the course of the film is uniquely frustrating. We've seen this story. Puppets don't automatically make it more interesting.

There is value in telling familiar stories in new ways, and Anomalisa does that with gusto. But the fact that Anomalisa is so thoughtful and so meticulous in everything it does, from its design to its direction to its spectacular voice acting, makes it a little disappointing when the story goes exactly where you'd expect.