Disconcertingly honest and painful for a film featuring puppets, something that also makes it frequently dull and uncomfortable.
In the voiceover of the trailer for Anomalisa, David Thewlis asks “What is it to be human?” and “What is it to be alive?”. These questions appear to be part of a grand, inspiring speech (a customer service adviser and motivational speaker), begging for applause. Yet Kaufman’s film takes these rhetorical questions and turns them into the desperate search of a human falling apart. Almost ironic, considering Stone is a puppet.
Michael Stone (David Thewlis) arrives in Cincinnati late one night, and heads straight to the Fregoli hotel where he’ll be giving a speech at a conference the following day. He’s depressed and incredibly lonely, despite the fact that everyone he meets is kind and conversational. Those same people all look and sound the same to him. He can barely talk on the phone to his wife and child (Tom Noonan), he ill-advisedly reunites with an ex (Tom Noonan), and he drinks. Against all odds however, Michael hears a new voice. That of Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a shy, insecure woman from the Midwest, staying at the hotel with her friend Emily (Tom Noonan) so they can attend the same conference. Over the following twelve hours, Michael and Lisa open up to each other, and the former discovers if he can ever have a real human connection again.
There’s no replacement for empathy in films, and here Kaufman uses the incredibly human, Mancunian tones of David Thewlis to manipulate ours. With Thewlis’ voice emanating from Stone, Kaufman is able to perfectly control the audience’s reactions to his various turns. Thewlis completely embodies the sadness and loneliness of Stone, but he’s also cruel, judgemental, and incredibly charming and sweet. Whilst Stone doesn’t always have the sympathies of the audience (nor should he), thanks to Thewlis’s excellent voice performance, he’s instinctively empathetic and fundamentally human, even at his worst.
Leigh and Noonan meanwhile, as the other inhabitants of Michael’s world, are equally excellent. Leigh’s performance as Lisa takes her insecurities and combines with them an honesty and an energy that makes her a fully-bodied human being. She isn’t a caricature at all, she is more than her shortcomings. Noonan is undeniably the films biggest asset. It’s his plain, friendly, near characterless tones that fill every other person, and miraculously make them as believable as Michael and Lisa, despite their uniformity.
Despite these performances, and the gorgeous stop-motion animation, Anomalisa is so committed to what Kaufman sees as “real” and “human”, that it certainly won’t be for everyone. While it’s only 90 minutes long, at times it drags. The characters talk slowly, they shuffle along an inch at a time, and every one of them reacts in ways that don’t feel scripted, but as though they’ve been taken from recordings of actual humans. This realism is effective in some ways (for instance in a sex scene that is the most disconcertingly intimate and truthful one you will see), but also threateningly dull in others, and imposes a tone on the film that could completely derail it. Furthermore, the answers as to why everyone sounds like Noonan are not exactly clear or forthcoming. As the film reaches its painful finale, it’s easy to feel cheated, and hard to feel happy, or sad for that matter.
For its excellent voice performances, and the questions that it will ask of the audience, Anomalisa is essential viewing, but it’s an uncomfortable one. The answers you reach are never as fulfilling as the ones you may expect going in.
Anomalisa (2015), directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, is distributed in the UK by Curzon Artificial Eye. Certificate 15.