Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s Anomalisa is a difficult film to write about in great depth, at least in an advance-review sort of capacity, because so much of what makes it remarkable comes in the individual viewer’s discoveries. I’m not just talking about something as vast (and often meaningless) as “spoilers”; I’m talking about the film’s style, the specific choices that inform how this story is told, and why. The precise moment of realizing exactly what Kaufman and Johnson are up to will vary from viewer to viewer; perhaps comparing those moments will forge some sort of community around the experience (complete with the kind of know-it-alls who’ll tell you “I knew he was dead all along” when The Sixth Sense comes up). I’m not interested in ruining that moment for you, and will thus attempt to sell you on this movie without explicitly explaining this giant part of what makes it so extraordinary.
Worth noting, right off the bat, is that Anomalisa is rendered in stop-motion puppet animation, a choice that may seem inexplicable (or at least off-putting) before the true nature of the enterprise reveals itself—because in its early scenes, this seems a story that could very easily have been told in live action. Michael (voiced by David Thewlis), a motivational speaker specializing in the intricacies of customer service, arrives in Cincinnati to give a seminar at a conference. He has an agonizing conversation with a brutally dull cab driver; he arrives at his hotel, and has another agonizing conversation with a brutally dull bellhop. He calls home, and has a strained conversation with his wife and child. And then he looks at the phone, and gives in to the temptation to make another call.
The voice on the other end belongs to a woman he used to love. It ended badly; it doesn’t go all that well this time around, but she accepts his invitation to meet for a drink, the vulnerability in her voice nearly shaking the line (“I’ve gained some weight”). This scene, while barely pitched above a whisper, is one of the more emotionally harrowing movie scenes in recent memory, because of its discomforting familiarity; many of us have picked up that phone and made that call, not because we needed to, or even wanted to, but because we could. And, of course, many of us have received that call – and responded it to it, ignoring our misgivings.
The evening goes on. He gets drunk and unsteady. He meets another girl, Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), and she seems, late that night in that strange place, perfect—not merely attractive or interesting (both, in fact, are arguable), but everything he needs and desires, and the picture beautifully realizes that first flush of infatuation, when everything about another person is simply extraordinary.
Lisa doesn’t think she’s extraordinary; “I’m never gonna be smart, and I’m ugly,” she says, less as an opening or a compliment-fish than as a statement of fact, everything in her flat inflection conveying the way an average person in an average place can lead what amounts to a life of quiet resignation. They talk, she sings to him, they kiss, they have sex. (It says much about this film and every other one that this stop-motion puppet sex scene is more candid and realistic than 99% of those involving real people.) Michael decides he must have her, forever—or at least until the delusion and self-sabotage appear.
Kaufman’s script, initially staged as a live radio play, is admirably tricky; his ear for the mindless chatter of these interactions is sometimes uncomfortably keen, and he peppers the film with little touches (how he clumsily reaches for his old flame’s hands too soon, and how she balls them up and hides them in her sweater sleeves) that will read like either comedy or tragedy, depending on which side of them you’ve been on. The performances are astonishingly good—particularly Leigh (having quite a year, that one), who manages to put across the blandness of her character without looking down on her. Your heart breaks for her throughout the film, because you know how her story is going to end. And you know she does too.
The stop-motion is rather extraordinary, partially because it’s so well-done, and partially because (in the best possible sense) you stop noticing it. By the time Michael and Lisa are up in that hotel room, trying so heroically to say the right thing, the picture has transcended its gimmicks; it’s about these two people, and not only who they are, but who they’re choosing to be in that moment. In some ways, Anomalisa is unlike any movie Charlie Kaufman’s ever made. But in that sense, in that scene, it’s the culmination of everything he’s ever done.
Anomalisa is out Wednesday in limited release.