It is a truth universally acknowledged that a review of a Charlie Kaufman film should at some point contain the phrase, “Only Charlie Kaufman.” He is that singular, his voice that unique, his particular depiction of the human condition at once universally understood and confoundingly absurd. Only Charlie Kaufman could inspire intense empathy for a woman desperate to become John Malkovich. Only Charlie Kaufman could get away with inventing his own twin brother for a script adapting a book about orchids. And only Charlie Kaufman could make a movie populated entirely by puppets that end up feeling more real than so many actual actors.
In Anomalisa, Michael Stone (David Thewlis) makes a living off his books and speaking engagements on customer service. He arrives in Cincinnati for just such an engagement and it soon becomes obvious that he’s deeply unhappy. At least until he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh)—a sweet and charming woman that’s attending his talk as a tremendous fan of his work. Meeting her seems to bring him to life in a way we haven’t seen, as if the clouds overhead have parted, and the rest of film explores how Michael comes to terms with these feelings as the audience’s understanding of his depression grows.
The more we see of Michael and Lisa’s relationship, the more impressive the puppetry becomes. Credit on this point should go directly to Kaufman’s partner, as the film is actually a joint venture between Kaufman and Duke Johnson of oddball Adult Swim comedy Moral Orel. The lines on each puppet’s face, clearly marking where parts of it can be swapped out to create the full range of facial expressions, are normally digitally edited out for a seamless appearance. The decision not to do so here is clearly intentional, and it works. The lines almost act as constant reminders that not only is everyone is built the same way, but perhaps even that everyone is broken in the same ways.
For the spoiler averse, I recommend skipping the next section, because while it almost pains me to share this fact (one I delighted in discovering on my first watch of the film at the Chicago International Film Festival in 2015), there’s no way to do a discussion of the film justice without mentioning one crucial detail: Everyone Michael meets is the same until he finds Lisa.
I don’t mean this metaphorically. Every single other character—from the bellboy to the waiter to Michael’s own wife and child—is voiced by Tom Noonan. Not only that, but while each puppet may sport different hairstyles or body types, they each have the exact same face; a fact I didn’t even realize until a good 30 minutes in. Well, all except Michael and Lisa that is.
This one little detail manages to expertly explain the way Michael sees the entire world. The settings change, but all the people are the same, a fact which frustrates him endlessly. He feels isolated in his depression, and then he hears Lisa’s voice down the hall. Jennifer Jason Leigh shines here, her voice ringing out clear as a bell amid the dozens of Noonans.
Their whirlwind of a romance ultimately leads to what is easily and by far the most realistic sex scene perhaps ever filmed. Yes, somehow a movie populated entirely by puppets managed to capture all the awkward realities of sex better. In the moment, there’s passion, sure, but there’s also the struggle of what to do with an unfamiliar body, the uncertainty and nervousness of it all, and perhaps most importantly, the humor of it.
Ultimately, Anomalisa uses Kaufman’s trademark absurdity to explore the way our obsession with our own unhappiness can lead to a kind of selfishness and self-absorption. We see ourselves as unique, while ignoring the obvious truths that even Michael spouts in his customer service book: “Each person you speak to has had a day. Some of the days have been good, some bad, but they've all had one. Each person you speak to has had a childhood. Each has a body. Each body has aches.”
Nothing could be more true or harder to remember when you’re in the grips of your own loneliness, and Anomalisa brilliantly explores it all in what I believe to be one of Kaufman’s finest projects to date.