Preciousness and misanthropy have always been the twin hallmarks of Charlie Kaufman’s work, his characters’ misery heightened and sometimes enlivened by the writer-director’s ability to craft clever sci-fi/fantastical scenarios around them. In Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind (which won him a Best Original Screenplay Oscar) or his 2008 directorial debut Synecdoche, New York, he has managed to make everyday loneliness and the gnawing sense of futility resonate with an almost ineffable sting. In Kaufman’s hands, life looks heartbreaking, and yet it can often be beautiful at the same time.
It’s hard to know yet whether Anomalisa is a new peak for Kaufman, or merely another highlight in a distinguished career. But what is clear at this point is that it’s piercingly poignant—perhaps his most succinct expression of the malaise that’s forever haunting his work. Anomalisa doesn’t resolve the issues that have eaten at his characters since his first published screenplay, 1999’s Being John Malkovich, but the honesty with which he depicts those struggles remain startling, even comforting. This movie is life-affirming, not because of any artificial feel-good sentiment, but because it mirrors one’s own mixed feelings about the wonders and horrors of being alive. Plus, it’s really funny.
Anomalisa was co-directed by Duke Johnson, an animator director, and is rendered entirely in stop-motion animation. Much like Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anomalisa reflects Kaufman’s aesthetic in a way that’s purer and more direct than what live-action can provide. The fragile, deadpan, handmade quality of the characters serves as a shorthand for the neuroses and sadness that occupy all of Kaufman’s narratives.
Once we meet Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), we feel like we know him. A productivity expert, Michael does speaking engagements around the world, his modest notoriety boosted by a successful self-help book he wrote a few years ago. But as he lands in Cincinnati for his next appearance, it’s clear he’s depressed, and not because he’s in Cincinnati. Really, it could be any town, which is part of the problem: In a few well-drawn early scenes, Anomalisa lays out the drudgery of life on the road, the crushing sameness of the hotel rooms and the blank, uniform friendliness of the employees. Adding to his troubles, we deduce from a brief phone call back home to England that Michael’s family life is far from perfect. There’s nothing terribly wrong with Michael, and maybe that’s why he’s so unspeakably melancholy: He’s cursed to be underwhelmed by his very existence.
For a Kaufman project, Anomalisa is actually relatively low-concept. Despite the stop-motion animation, the film (based on a short live-theater piece he created about 10 years ago) lacks much of the surrealism and meta-commentary of his earlier work. As such, this delicate story encourages one not to give away too many specifics so that audiences can experience it unfettered from any expectations. So let’s leave it at this: Michael is set to give his standard motivational speech tomorrow at a conference, but he needs to fill the empty hours tonight. And because Kaufman doesn’t reveal a lot about Michael’s inner world, the character’s actions offer clues into his mindset: He calls a woman in town he knew long ago; he looks for a toy for his kid; he meets Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) and her friend and coworker (voiced by Tom Noonan, although the character’s a woman), who have traveled from Akron to see him speak at the conference. Although Lisa is painfully insecure, making self-deprecating jokes about her own lack of sophistication, Michael takes a shine to her.
There are plenty of ways for this movie to go wrong. Poke fun at the small indignities of traveling—the strange cabbie, the chatty bellhop, the weird buttons on the hotel phone—and you risk coming across as entitled or doing tired stand-up bits. Treat first-world problems as grand indications of The State Of The World Today and you open yourself up to charges of solipsism and navel-gazing. So credit Kaufman and Johnson for both a sense of humor and a generosity to its characters. No one Michael encounters in Anomalisa is deserving of scorn, and Kaufman never feels superior to the denizens of this Midwestern town. If anything, the characters are all connected by the writer’s bemused empathy for the ways that we figure out ways to keep going, whether it’s by repeating the same pleasantries to one another or by giving the same enthusiastic speech to a room full of strangers at different conventions.
As is often the case in Kaufman’s work, Anomalisa juxtaposes the queasiness around the minutiae of corporate-speak with the vulnerability and promise of new love. Michael’s fondness for Lisa develops over the evening, and because we’re familiar with how Kaufman operates, we keep waiting for the twist of the knife, for the unexpected reveal, to occur. There are surprises, but Anomalisa’s switcheroos aren’t as outlandish as they’ve been in his past films. (The film doesn’t shift tones radically in the third act like Adaptation or introduce a sci-fi conceit like Eternal Sunshine.)
Instead, a peculiarity within Anomalisa that starts off as a wryly amusing running joke ends up becoming a clue to a deeper realization about Michael—and, in turn, becomes a darker comment on the anonymity and soullessness of so much of modern life. You’ll laugh during Anomalisa—at its peculiar animation, at its lightly fatalist tone—but the longer it goes along, the more the jokes feel like a thin buffer from the oncoming waves of sadness that consume this film. There is gratefulness to be had for the laughs, but even more for the deep empathy, unpredictability and humanity of such a singular film. Watching a movie about such loneliness, you suddenly feel a little less alone in the universe.
Directors: Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson
Writer: Charlie Kaufman
Starring: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan
Release Date: Screening at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.