Anomalisa is predicated on a simple truth: you can explore the oddness of the everyday by looking at it another way. This stop-motion animation, based on a play sprung from the fertile mind of Charlie Kaufman, opens with customer service expert Michael Stone (voiced by a brilliantly-downbeat David Thewlis) landing in Cincinatti to give a speech at a conference. Despite having a wife, a son and memories of loves past, he feels isolated. You would too if everyone around you had Tom Noonan’s voice.”
One could imagine this scenario playing out in good old-fashioned reality, but Anomalisa‘s stop-motion world accentuates the oddness of our most basic interactions. All the Tom Noonans of this world surround Stone in grating small talk. A taxi driver recommends the city’s zoo to Stone (Apparently, it’s zoo-sized), while the concierge at the Fregoli Hotel offers only the best, broad-smiled service. The hotel name nods to Fregoli delusion, a psychological disorder in which a person believes all other people are in fact the same person. Though never diagnosed in the film, that appears to be the crux of Stone’s isolation. Pay attention to the imaaculately-shaped faces in the film; there are a multitude of Noonan soundalike characters here, but their similarities may outweigh their differences.
If the world of Kaufman’s directorial debut Synecdoche, New York appeared to be disintegrating, Anomalisa‘s hyper-reality is polished but recognisable. It may be a world of puppets, but it could be just around the corner. This world comes courtesy of co-director Duke Johnson, making his first feature having previously directed animated shorts and TV shows. The film is full of impressive tracking shots and long takes, the result of doubtless long hours, days and months to shoot what amounts to 90 minutes of loveliness. The seamless animation has just enough design grooves and stitches to allow the craft on display to be rightly admired.The first act of the film sees Stone apparently on the verge of cracking. Depressed by the over-politeness of the uni-voiced hordes, he calls an old flame who lives in the city and invites her for a drink. It doesn’t end well, and she also sounds like Tom Noonan. In case this sounds like hating on Mr. Noonan’s performances, quite the opposite is true. It’s a challenge to resist the urge to put on voices for every character, and Noonan delivers on this tough ask.
After hilariously awkward episodes with his ex, room service and a visit to a sex shop, out of nowhere Stone hears another voice: a woman’s voice! Enter Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lisa, a fellow conference attendee. There are clear differences between she and Stone, financially, academically and otherwise, but that doesn’t matter to Stone. She has the down-to-earth honeyed larynx of Jennifer Jason Leigh, and that makes all the difference. Anomalisa is a touching and emotionally electrifying treatise on human relationships. Like fellow Venice offering A Bigger Splash, it comments on the limits of communication. Can we take anything more or less seriously if it’s said in a particular voice, or delivered via animation? The answer is yes, but it shouldn’t be so. In one of the most touching scenes in a film this year, Lisa delivers a rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.’ Unlikely as it sounds, Stone is moved to tears, and so are we. Kaufman’s script and Johnson’s attention to detail offers us characters so rounded that when a sex scene comes along, it’s played straight and true, an antidote to Team America‘s stringed sex athletics. We know we’re in an animated world, but it’s more real than most recent onscreen couplings (with one or two possible exceptions). Anomalisa is one of the finest cinematic romances in recent years, and one of the year’s best.
Anomalisa is due in Irish cinemas in March 2016.