“Anomalisa” (2015), a tender, searching new film from the mind of writer-director Charlie Kaufman and his collaborator Duke Johnson, might feature stop-motion animation and puppets, but it’s primarily preoccupied with what it means to be human, in the most expansive sense of the word. To be more exact, it deals with what it is to be human in an era and a society in which the most benign and ostensibly pleasant gestures are in some ways symptoms of a more pervasive cultural alienation. For Kaufman, whose view of the world often tend toward off-kilter and irreverently gloomy, there is something discomforting, even sinister, lurking in the banal aspects of everyday life.
To get this across, the time frame of the film is compressed, covering the course of an evening and the following day, and lingering on moments that others would dismiss as insignificant. There’s a cringeworthy scene early in the film with an upbeat bellhop, who strains to make small talk as he brings the protagonist Michael Stone’s (voiced by David Thewlis) luggage to his room. The conversation (if it can even be called that) seems to brazenly defy every convention of screenwriting, until you realize that its very inanity is the point: each of these small interactions, trivial as they might seem, is driving Michael ever-closer to the precipice of emotional and existential despair.
Other things seem to be nudging him in that direction, too. An unhappily married author of customer service self-help books, Michael flies out to Cleveland to speak at a conference. The evening he arrives at his hotel, after a brief, tense phone call with his wife and an abortive attempt at rekindling a relationship with an old flame, he meets Lisa (the wonderful Jennifer Jason Leigh), a diffident sales rep from the Midwest who entices him with her self-effacing manner. But it’s her voice that truly captivates him and he continually prods her to use it, eagerly lapping up every syllable she utters. She’s unique. She’s an anomaly. Hence: Anomalisa. Leigh, apparently undaunted by the prospect of breathing life into a puppet, proves up to the challenge. Her voice is gentle, restrained, and sensuous–in other words, human.
Kaufman’s choice to set most of the action in a hotel is a brilliant conceit. With its dim, drab lighting, lack of any personal touches and rows of identical rooms, the hotel is the perfect symbol of modern anonymity and alienation — a place where people shed their true selves rather than inhabit them. And the name of the hotel, Fregoli, serves as a sly nod to the Fregoli delusion, a rare psychological condition that makes someone perceive different people as the same person. Though we’re never privy to any official diagnosis, this seems to be what ails Michael — an inability to distinguish anyone from the pack and the despair that accompanies it. In an ingenious trick, the directors have Tom Noonan voice every other character in the film, implying that they’re all variants of the same person, at least in Michael’s mind.
The use of puppets that could easily pass as human beings, if not for their overly expressive eyes and segmented faces resembling masks, can make for an eerie, almost unsettling effect — especially by the time the climactic sex scene rolls around (I’ll let you experience that bit of cinematic magic for yourselves). At the same time, animation as a form afford the filmmakers much greater freedom than real-life actors do. Ironically, however, here Kaufman steers mostly clear of the surrealism that was integral to earlier efforts, such as “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004) and “Being John Malkovich” (1999). In “Anomalisa,” finding a beacon of human connection amidst a sea of isolation is surreal enough.