Only in a Charlie Kaufman movie can a character ask existential questions such as “What is it to ache? What is it to be alive?” and not come off as a freshman-year philosophy major writing his first term paper. In the movies he has written (“Adaptation,” “Being John Malkovich,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) and directed (“Synecdoche, New York”), Kaufman has used surreal premises as a launching point for wise, eloquent explorations about the human need to love and create.
“Anomalisa,” which Kaufman co-directed with stop-motion animation artist Duke Johnson, takes a different approach. The situation this time is drab and ordinary: Michael (voiced by David Thewlis), a customer-service specialist, has come to Cincinnati for a speaking engagement. Michael is married, with kids and has a successful career. He should be happy. But he’s in the throes of an emotional funk, the nagging, restless discontent that often afflicts Kaufman’s protagonists.
Except there’s no specific reason for Michael’s depression. As he takes a cab from the airport to his hotel, checks in and orders room service, everyone sounds the same (all of the other characters in the film, save one, are voiced by Tom Noonan) and they almost look the same, too. And nothing Michael does – call up an old flame to see if she’s interested in a one-night stand or go out to a toy store to buy a present for his son – works out well. Fate is conspiring to keep Michael mired in silent misery, and the movie gently implies that he deserves his sadness.
Then he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the eponymous anomaly – a lively, spirited woman who is a fan of Michael’s motivational how-to books and has come to Cincinnati to attend his presentation. Lisa isn’t particularly bright or attractive, but something about her spirit draws Michael out of his gloom. When she sings the world’s saddest rendition of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” he’s smitten. “Everyone is one person except you and me,” he tells her, which is as close to an expression of love as he’s capable.
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The prevailing mood in “Anomalisa” is a surreal otherness, the result of the intricate stop-motion animation, which is beautiful but not so polished to pass for Pixar. Banal, everyday things, such as Michael making a phone call, become fascinating to watch: A surprisingly explicit sex scene is handled so simply, you forget to snicker (this is not a movie for children). The film’s visual artistry works as an ideal counterbalance for Kaufman’s heady brand of middle-aged despair. “Anomalisa” was originally written as a radio show to be performed live on the stage. Now, with only a few tweaks, it has been turned into an equally effective movie, proof that the human conditions of longing and discontent don’t change, no matter the medium.
Rated: R for vulgar language, strong sexual content, nudity. Voices: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan. Directors: Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson. Running time: 90 minutes. Theater: Flicks.