Retrospectively, a film solely populated by nearly blank-faced puppets seems almost inevitable for Charlie Kaufman, a writer-director who’s fashioned a veritable cottage industry surreally mining American male alienation. Which is to say that Anomalisa, which Kaufman wrote and co-directed with Duke Johnson, initially strikes one as weirdly reductive and literal-minded, and not only because it elaborately recalls the puppet metaphor at the center of Being John Malkovich.
Before this film, Kaufman’s characters were only figuratively anonymous, distinctively marked by life forces they couldn’t detect about themselves. Here, they’re authentically interchangeable—with a few telling exceptions, barely animate, reminiscent of the characters in Team America: World Police and certain creations from the Quay brothers’ oeuvre. Kaufman is usually such an ingenious fashioner of existential high concepts that one might greet Anomalisa with a stilted sigh. Puppets with eerily hinged faces? Is that it?
Not quite. There’s another gimmick in Anomalisa, an aural flourish that’s brilliant for five minutes and purposefully maddening ever afterward. When Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a successful customer service guru and author, speaks with people, they all sound to him like the actor Tom Noonan, who doesn’t differentiate his purring, insinuating rhythms one bit from character to character, regardless of their age, gender, or cultural heritage. It doesn’t matter who Michael’s talking to, as everyone from his wife to his son to an ex to the bellboy of an expensive hotel speaks like Noonan, who comes to sound, through the repetition, a little like John Malkovich.
This is a fascinatingly irritating device, which Kaufman and Johnson occasionally use for fish-out-of-water humor. As in Michael calling someone on the phone with a male voice who suddenly says they’re menstruating. But Anomalisa isn’t really a comedy. As he illustrated in that oppressive, monotonous dirge known as Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman has grown too self-serious, and self-pitying, for mere jokes.
The supporting characters’ unvaried voices simultaneously suggest Michael’s inability to look beyond his own loneliness and longing so as to truly hear others, who are all the same to him, and, more strikingly and surprisingly, the anonymous social cocoons we wear while interacting with strangers. Speaking with people we don’t know, we tend to play the role of an idealized non-person who’s inoffensive, forgettable, accommodating, and creepy. This non-personality often extends to the early stages of romance, before we’re comfortable enough to show someone our vulnerable idiosyncrasies. Michael, who travels quite a bit for his career, has come to discern this phenomenon with a clarity that might mercifully elude many homebodies.
The imagery bolsters this sense of detachment. The stylized sets, in their nearly supernaturally affluent functionality, suggest a Claymation rendering of a Dilbert or Far Side strip as directed by Stanley Kubrick, most notably a devastating climactic image in which Michael’s head is eclipsed by light that visibly swallows up his nearly rediscovered joie de vivre. When he strolls down an endless hotel hallway, he seems to subtly float, suggesting entrapment in his own head—a divorce from surrounding people and objects. Kaufman is nearly without peer in simulating the biological sensations of depression, particularly the numbness, the tastelessness, as well as the conviction that nothing worth experiencing is capable of happening to you.
This formal mercilessness is essential to lowering the audience’s guard for the unexpected tenderness of the film’s big scene: Michael meeting a woman, Lisa, staying at his hotel and who’s voiced by someone other than Noonan, more specifically Jennifer Jason Leigh at her most poignantly sunny and vulnerable. When Michael and Lisa get together, they share a long, revealing duet that bridges romantic idealization with the torment that inspires it.
At the depths of loneliness, one hopes desperately to be thrown a life preserver, for someone to just “get” them without them having to struggle to make themselves heard or even likable. Kaufman, Johnson, Thewlis, Noonan, and Leigh, especially, understand that. Lisa is profoundly and stereotypically damaged, with a scar on her face that offers testament to Kaufman’s penchant for overdoing symbolism, but Leigh’s performance is so vividly specific that it hardly matters. Lisa’s childish way of deferring compliments is particularly heartbreaking, as is the fashion in which she pronounces herself ugly: with a self-protected confidence that speaks of practice.
Anomalisa’s highpoint is one of the most remarkably moving sex scenes in all of American cinema, and the irony of it involving bland puppets is hardly lost on Kaufman and Johnson, who understand that sex, among the lonely, is an elaborate plea for inclusion, for an impression of normativity. But the filmmakers have one final punchline up their sleeves, one the attentive will anticipate, that’s astonishing in its cruelty. Kaufman has often sentimentalized his wounded, narcissistic dreamers, but he doesn’t here. Michael’s sickness is about Michael, and rests with him. Meet-cutes aren’t a cure.