The Venice Film festival took a decidedly offbeat turn with the premiere of Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa. With his latest work, the thrice Golden Globe-nominated screenwriter and director (Being John Malkovich, 2000; Adaptation, 2003; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 2005) moves into the unexplored idiom of stop motion animation, even as his narrative treads familiar territory.
The story finds Michael Stone, a middle-aged motivational speaker en route to a conference on telephone marketing strategies in Cincinnati. As he checks into his anonymous downtown hotel, we find out both that he is married and that he is still toying with the idea of reconnecting with an old flame who happens to live in the city. The meeting with the ex-lover of a decade past does not go well and Stone, whose life appears stuck in the familiar conundrums of middle age, ends up meeting two female conference attendees. He is particularly struck by Lisa, the more homelier of the two friends. Even though she is partly disfigured by a scar, Michael finds her to stand out irresistibly from the crowd – something that is helped by the fact that the character, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, is the only other one of the cast with a distinctive voice. Michael is voiced by David Thewlis while every other character speaks with the voice of Tom Noonan. It is a typically Kaufman-like device, which lends the proceedings an air of unreality that amplifies the protagonist’s discomfort and growing sense of emotional displacement. Initially this impact is heightened by the fact that all actors are puppets, but thanks to the wonderfully accomplished stop motion animation by Duke Johnson (and cinematography by Joe Passarelli), that fact soon recedes into the background. And for the record the film’s R rating for sexuality is more than well deserved, stop motion or not.
The rest of the story deals with Michael and Lisa’s interaction and what ends up being Michael’s less than successful conference – in more ways than one. A minimalist narrative that evokes the surrealism of a Borges novella or a Ionesco play (Anomalisa was originally written by Kaufman as an experimental audio play for composer Carter Burwell’s Theater of the New Ear). It is a film about the banality of life and the despairingly mundane, which at the same manages to inspire real emotion and profundity through the lyrics of a Cindy Lauper song. What, you say? Well as in any Kaufman movie words simply fail to do justice here. The best possible advice is to see for yourself why Anomalisa will likely be remembered as one of this festival’s more interesting offerings.