Anomalisa is a small movie set mostly in one hotel room over the course of one night, focused claustrophobically on one man’s self-important feelings of loneliness and dejection. It also manages to be a story that could only be told through animation. That’s certainly not a pair of cinematic ideas you see every day. Call it stop-motion mumblecore, I suppose, if you’re fumbling for a taxonomic foothold. It follows intricately manipulated puppets, human figures at once totally obviously fake and uncannily real, flickers of subtle emotion and natural gestures behind soft textures and noticeable seams. The main character is a motivational speaker (David Thewlis) who is deep inside an impenetrable fog of sadness and melancholy, solipsistic narcissism mixed with downbeat misery. We watch as he stays in a hotel, a perfect dollhouse recreation of humdrum quotidian details, trying to avoid contemplating his unhappiness.
He has ceased engaging with the world outside his head in any meaningful way. Part of his problem is seeing everyone else as an undifferentiated sea of boring people hardly worth considering as individuals. Driving the point home, every other puppet has the same face, and speaks with the voice of Tom Noonan, sounding unusually soft and dull. The fog threatens to lift when the speaker meets a shy woman who passes the time chatting with him, first in the hotel bar, then in his room. She’s not like everyone else in his eyes. Her face looks unlike the others’. And her voice is not the dry monotone of strangers and family alike, but a hesitant and warm lilting Jennifer Jason Leigh speaking. They stay up talking and drinking, drawing closer and more intimate as the night goes on. They may be animated, but they connect on something like a human level.
And so the movie proceeds as a tiny, contained talky character piece with subtext laid out on the surface through consciously artificial but fairly low energy style. Written and co-directed by Charlie Kaufman (whose tangled, layered, high-concept screenplays looped so strangely and pleasingly in Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) the film represents his most restrained narrative ideas – a simple night of connection temporarily curing loneliness before an ultimate relapse into disconnection – told through obvious metaphor. Like his directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, a wild, sprawling, and odd contemplation of mortality and thwarted ambition, Anomalisa has a precisely calibrated feeling of tracing endlessly through a man’s troubled mind. However, it’s much smaller, more contained, less strange – an unfolding emotional and psychological breakdown, but one of quiet desperation.
Working with stop-motion director Duke Johnson (probably best known for two claymation episodes of the unsustainable sitcom Community), Kaufman creates a film that’s alive when the man and the woman have their alone time together in conversation that’s tender and surprisingly real. The disjunction in seeing puppet people share convincing and adult emotional terrain together is both weirdly touching and a little funny, never more so than in a sweet a cappella rendition of a Cyndi Lauper song. But as Kaufman backs away from a more literal flavor into something more abstract – listen for Noonan’s voice filtering through in a sad fading of individuality – the movie becomes both more and less interesting.
Hermetically sealed and quietly felt, it’s a movie most true in moments between two people talking, and most false when it’s all supposed to match up with the overarching metaphor. Asking questions about what it means to be human through the plastic visages of unreal people, it finds only elaborately produced overfamiliarity. The whole thing is filled with awkward silences and padded with tedious normal tasks laboriously realistically portrayed. The imagery is so spare and normal it could be unusually detailed animatics for a live action shoot. It’s strange, a lot of work to detail and animate a world that’s basically like our own, for no reason other than to support the elaborate metaphor for self-inflicted misanthropic isolation on display. Tom Noonan playing all but two characters, every man, woman, and child, simply wouldn’t fly in live action, but here erodes any sense of connection to emotional reality anyway. It's mixture of real fake locations and fake real emotions left me cold.
It’s a movie concerned with a man’s sadness, and finds it all very poignant how he can’t even selfishly use a woman’s company on a business trip to break him away from his dull suburban family life, when really he’s self-absorbed. I was sold on the dispiriting soul-crushing mood, but not so much on why it’s supposed to be inherently interesting to find a man trapped in his own sad circle of cold detachment. Sad sack misanthropic self-help expert can’t help himself. Oh, the irony. There’s only so much sad puppet man moping I could take. Ultimately, Anomalisa is one of those movies that is exactly and completely the thing it wants to be. That thing just isn’t for me. It drifted away from my interest as it followed its hollow obsessions into emotional tedium.