While “Inside Out” advanced the potential of modern animated cinema last summer, “Anomalisa” matures the field into serious critical consideration.
“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Adaptation” screenwriter Charlie Kaufman derived his stop-motion “Anomalisa” from a play he wrote in 2005. A decade later, the film opened in Pittsburgh last Friday.
The film follows Michael Stone — voiced by the gravelly, British David Thewlis — an aging customer service-themed author who arrives at a Cincinnati convention for a weekend to speak on his latest book. Over the course of the weekend, we experience Michael’s social disconnect and self-diagnosed “psychological problems” as he battles the banality of everyday life.
Told from Michael’s perspective, every other person, including his wife and son, possesses the exact same unspecific face — all of whom American actor Tom Noonan voices. In perfect accord with his calm, yet unsettling vocal presence, Noonan’s voice fills the film’s background with a satirical, and at times ominous, presence.
The strangers’ matching faces and voices represent Michael’s possibly deteriorating mental health or a metaphorical weight. The implications of a world of nearly infinite strangers is the gloomy backbone of the animated film.
After Michael’s uncomfortable — yet hilarious — interactions with various service industry employees, the customer service author attempts to reconnect with an ex, Bella. Though his attempt to reconnect with Bella fails, he later overhears the distinct voice of Lisa — voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh.
He is captivated by Lisa’s individual face, which is marked with a scar, and especially her voice, which punctures through his isolation. Despite being unremarkable as a person, she is the only other character in the film with her own voice and face, leading Michael to claim her as extraordinary.
Kaufman’s weary existentialism and delicate sense of the surreal give “Anomalisa” an exceptionally contemplative mood. The film’s slightness in scope, such as its limited narrative and setting, is perhaps the film’s only flaw, yet it is the crux of all the virtues.
Beyond the compact story and premise, the animation highlights the minimalism at the heart of “Anomalisa.” Remarkably, the film doesn’t use CGI, instead enlisting 3-D printers for its characters and real world setting, making it feel visually sparse.
The stop-motion photography, which furthers the homespun, unfussy project, was partially funded through a Kickstarter campaign. Originating as a “sound play” script for the Theater of the New Ear series, which combines music and text only, “Anomalisa” spawned from a second sound play idea in which a single actor would voice most of the characters.
Kaufman agreed to make the script into a feature film after comedy writer and producer Dino Stamatopoulos (“Community”) convinced him over several years.
The animation expresses the film’s subtext of solitude and the way we romanticize others, in ways that live action could not achieve. It shatters stereotypes of animation, with a well-earned R-rating showcasing less-than-savory language, as well as sex and nudity, with unwavering honesty.
Kaufman, alongside small-time director Duke Johnson, has formulated another melancholy, yet remarkably insightful film about the meaning in everyday life, which for most of us is easily cast aside as unremarkable. What centers around a brief anomaly — Michael’s chance encounter with Lisa — wrings out potent emotional truths about romance from all sides.
“Anomalisa” is also humorous, laced with moments of rich and thoughtful social satire. Kaufman retains his usual philosophical musings within dialogue, though on a much subtler level — “Each person you speak to has had a childhood, each has a body, each body has aches,” Michael muses in the film’s trailer.
For all the painstaking trials of stop-motion animation, the focus is more on the film’s mature subject and themes. “Anomalisa” finds Kaufman in a typically self-reflexive state, investigating his own eccentric genius while appealing to universal truths in top form.