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.