The hands-on touch of stop motion animation is a welcome antidote to increasingly digital CGI films, as well as a fast track to extreme quirkiness in hands of filmmakers like Michel Gondry, Wes Anderson and, most recently, Charlie Kaufman in his cruelly affecting tale of modern isolation, “Anomalisa.” Marrying a highly unrealistic visual style with a painfully realistic pace, Kaufman’s human characters do things the Fantastic Mr. Fox never dreamed of. At least, I would prefer to go ahead with my life assuming Mr. Fox didn’t do them.
As a writer, Charlie Kaufman produced some of the most inventive films of the last couple of decades, namely “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Being John Malkovich,” which were directed, respectively, by Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze. His 2008 directorial debut of his own material, however, produced a thunderously boring and pretentious, commercially disastrous movie, “Synecdoche, New York.” Many critics adored his brave efforts, but I found his commitment to capturing the ennui of existence too successful, and fell sound asleep. “Anomalisa” was funded on Kickstarter, leaving Kaufman the creative freedom to make a movie that was a weird as he wanted it to be.
And indeed, weird it is. “Anomalisa” dramatizes the experience of extreme isolation by exploring a very rare psychological problem called the Fregoli delusion, a belief that different people are in fact the same person. The protagonist Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis of “Harry Potter”) is a terribly depressed but successful motivational speaker, on a 24-hour stint in Cincinnati for a speaking engagement and staying at the Hotel Fregoli. As he encounters a cab driver, checks into his hotel and calls his wife, we slowly realize that every other character that isn’t Michael is voiced by the same person (Tom Noonan).
These weird, sad puppets literalize the philosophical questions of the film; they are actually manipulated, and they all have identical faces and voices. The puppets are basically realistic, yet have visible lines where their jaws attach, and at one point, Michael’s falls off. With undeniable artistry, Kaufman has created a tiny, nightmare mirror of the real world, a truly uncanny valley that pushes existential despair to the limit (maybe past it).
Michael tries to reconnect with an old girlfriend, who is still devastated over their sudden and inexplicable breakup a decade earlier, and generally moves like a zombie through his surroundings. Suddenly, in the din of matching voices, he hears someone else and rushes to find her. The owner of the one different voice is Jennifer Jason Leigh, a vivacious but insecure fan, and the two spend the night together. Meanwhile, his wife and son call, demanding gifts, and the all-night “toy store” nearby sells only adult toys. Michael brings a gift home anyway, presenting it to his son in the film’s claustrophobic conclusion.
Kaufman’s dedication to expressing depression and boredom sometimes works too well. While the experience of witnessing a lengthy, extremely realistic sexual encounter between two anatomically correct, paunchy, scarred puppets, moving towards one another despite crippling self-doubts, was unforgettable and artistically incredible, I also longed for it to end. Thinking about this remarkable film after watching it, I recognize countless interesting things about it, but I cannot say the experience of watching it was something I enjoyed.
“Anomalisa” is currently available to rent.