At the surreal apex of 1999’s Being John Malkovich, Charlie Kaufman presented us a restaurant populated entirely with Malkoviches. It’s the absurd comedic highlight of the film. Now imagine the kernel of that idea expanded across the world. What if everyone had one face? And instead of being hilarious, it’s desperately sad. A world in which everyone speaks with the same voice. Where no one has defining characteristics. Where no one is ever special. And where everyone looks a bit like Christian Slater, men and women alike.
Welcome to Cincinnati. Chain smoking contact centre motivational speaker Michael Stone (David Thewlis) has a speech to give and he’ll only be staying overnight. As Michael suffers a series of banal conversations arriving at and checking into his hotel, the viewer quickly starts sensing that something is definitely up. By the time he’s in his room, wearily calling his wife and son back home, it fully sinks in. Everyone has the same face. Everyone has the same voice (Tom Noonan). Everyone is everyone and everyone is no one. Except Michael.
Kaufman’s cinema is populated with loners, each a kind of sad-sack deviation of the revered writer’s own seemingly tortured self. Like few other notable screenwriters, Kaufman seems to channel his own neuroses and concerns into his characters as though performing some kind of therapeutic exorcism. It could all come off as terribly indulgent, but Kaufman sifts humane truisms from all the longing and self-loathing, truisms that touch the hearts of introverts everywhere. His cinema reaches out to a shy, sensitive audience as if to reassure that, y’know, it’s okay; he feels it too.
Michael is one of the toughest Kaufman protagonists to love. That he is (virtually) the only unique face in a sea of replicas underscores his loneliness and makes us side with him, yet Kaufman does his best to derail us at every turn. Michael is often rude, mean-spirited or, in the case of a late and integral breakfast scene, simply unpleasant. Thewlis voices him with an exhausted petulance verging on the completely resigned. Did I say voices? Oh yeah… One other thing…
Anomalisa is a stop-motion puppet film.
Co-directed by Duke Johnson and years in the making, Kaufman’s follow-up to Synecdoche, New York is every bit the contrary curiosity you might expect. The narrative – for once – is decidedly svelte. But Kaufman can’t be Kaufman without maddening complexity, and so this comes to bear in the film’s virtuoso execution. As a storytelling choice it makes a degree of sense; the perception that everyone has the same face and voice was only ever going to be produced through costly effects of some description, so why not build the entire world to accommodate it? Then there’s also, perhaps, the control element. It’s as if Kaufman has turned himself into Caden Cotard from Synecdoche, New York; Anomalisa is his tiny elaborate play version of the world.
When Michael discovers a singular face and voice in Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), he becomes infatuated and must have her, so desperate is he to make a connection in his otherwise beige existence. Lisa is concocted almost exclusively from low self-esteem and shyness, ashamed of a scar on her face. Michael’s insistence that she is someone of vital importance to him personally takes some bedding in before she can remotely accept it.
The dynamic between them is believable if troubling. Kaufman is wise enough not to suggest that Lisa represents all women; she is a specific character type, and a recognisable one at that. Just as Michael is. Yet the interplay between the two of them is far from balanced and feels uneasy throughout. This is likely intentional. Regardless of whether it is or not, it has a habit of making Lisa seem meek and pitiable and Michael something of a horny bully. Occasionally Anomalisa feels like a roundabout way for Kaufman to chastise himself for his own baser urges. And that would be indulgent.
While the murky gender politics of the film leave a bitter taste in the mouth there’s fortunately enough wonder and brilliance surrounding it to see us through and then some. The attention to detail is extraordinary. If there’s an unsung hero on this picture (and in this review so far) it has to be co-director Duke Johnson. As much as this is Kaufman’s story, it is Johnson who has made it all possible. From 3D printed irises to the tremendously believable sets (Michael has the chain hotel room), Johnson and his team have built a genuine world for this all to take place in.
And, y’know what, in spite of (and sometimes because of) Michael’s solipsistic ennui, Anomalisa is also frequently very, very funny. Those familiar with the writer’s sense of humour will be very much at home here. Who else would have the gumption to pepper his film with running gags about the size of zoos or the functions of antique Japanese sex toys? Kaufman’s idiosyncratic wit is as playful as ever.
The hotel setting is smart, perfectly encapsulating Michael’s emotional limbo. This is hardly revelatory, however. TV has spent the last decade using the hotel to such ends (from The Sopranos to The Leftovers). And film has its own long history. There are shots here that gamely recall the likes of Barton Fink or even The Shining.
As it unfurls (and as we’re treated to, believe it or not, one of the most convincing sex scenes to appear in a film full stop), Anomalisa totters impressively along a high-wire of incredulity. For better or worse this seems like one of the most unlikely pictures of the year and yet, considering its creative pedigree, somehow crazily inevitable all at once. After all, wasn’t it Being John Malkovich that posited an alternate-now in which a beloved public figure might turn expectations on their head to become lauded as a puppeteer? Sometimes it feels as though Kaufman is so far ahead of the rest of us he’s already writing his own future.