I’m not sure how Charlie Kaufman gets away with being Charlie Kaufman. If ever there was someone who wasn’t supposed to be able to function in Hollywood it’s him and yet here he is making extremely quirky movies in completely uncompromising ways and with moderately large budgets to boot. That Hollywood lets this guy make movies at all is amazing, the catch is that they don’t necessarily let him make them all that often, at least not recently. As a screenwriter Kaufman was working fairly steadily from 1999 through 2004 but things slowed down when he decided that going forward he would direct his own movies rather than allowing Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry bring his screenplays to the screen. Kaufman made his directorial debut with 2008’s Synecdoche, New York, a very strange and challenging film even by Kaufman’s standards which made very little money at the box office and mostly baffled a decent number of critics. It’s taken a good seven years for Kaufman to make another movie after that and he’s returned in a format we probably shouldn’t be too surprised by in retrospect: stop-motion animation.
The film begins with a British ex-patriot named Michael Stone (voice of David Thewlis) landing in Cincinnati, where he will be giving a motivational speech the next day. Stone is a somewhat famous personality in the customer service self-improvement circuit, which is ironic because the guy’s personal life is kind of a mess. Eventually he makes his way to an expensive hotel and as soon as he makes himself comfortable in his room he immediately hits up the mini-bar. Eventually in his tipsy loneliness he decides to call up an old girlfriend who apparently lives in town, but shortly after meeting her he is rejected. Shortly thereafter he meets a couple of women at the hotel who are familiar with his self-help books and are somewhat starstruck. Soon he strikes up a rapport with one of them named Lisa (voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh) and it’s unclear what this will lead to as the night develops.
The odd thing about Anomalisa is that if you look at it on its very basic story level it is both wholly unspectacular and also very tonally different than it comes off in the final film. On the surface this is the story of a lecherous borderline alcoholic married man who uses a business trip to get drunk, try to make a bootycall, and then when that falls through settle on hooking up with a frumpy country bumpkin who’s way too impressed to be in the presence of a “celebrity” like him. The only reason that this doesn’t come off like something out of Bad Lieutenant is because Charlie Kaufman makes a number of interesting execution decisions to show that it’s actually not “like that” and that this characters intentions are, if not pure, at least a little more nuanced than you might think.
The most obvious stylistic choice is of course the decision to make the film using stop motion animation even though the story would seem to be really down to earth and naturalistic on its surface. The “puppets” here are elaborate miniatures that are made to have very realistic human proportions while still clearly being 3D printed plastic things. You can clearly see where the tops and bottoms of the figure’s faces come apart (they have a seam at eye-level which kind of has the unintended consequence of making all the characters look like they’re wearing glasses) but Kaufman, co-director Duke Johnson, and their animation team do seem to render a whole lot of expression on these characters’ faces. As realistic as these puppets are they still put the audience at something of a remove from the action, and that helps them get something of a different view of Stone and his behavior than they would if they were actually watching David Thewlis have a drunken hookup with Jennifer Jason Leigh.
When I went to see Kaufman’s directorial debut, Synecdoche New York, I left the movie fascinated but also a bit perplexed. It was a movie that left me not quite sure what to think. I left Anomalisa similarly unsure what to think but for noticeably different reasons. Where that earlier film was this grand decades spanning story of huge ambition and filled with bold symbolism, this film tells an almost audaciously small scale and personal story but uses style rather than screenwriting to modify that story in interesting but not entirely clear way. I feel like there is somethings else going on here that I haven’t quite placed my finger on but which will probably require additional viewings in order to identify. Fortunately this is a movie that probably going to be a lot easier to sit and watch than Synecdoche. It’s short movie told in a fun style and with an interesting dry wit which should make this a fun movie to rewatch and study for deeper meaning, but as of right now, I’m a little hesitant to really fully embrace the film as anything more than a cool little experiment.
***1/2 out of Four