For his latest attempt to understand the human condition Charlie Kaufman has, in a very Kaufman-ish way, turned to puppets. The man who wrote the weird and affecting Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich and wrote/directed the befuddling Synecdoche, New York, doesn’t see people like other people do.
Based on Kaufman’s own play and co-directed by Duke Johnson, Anomalisa begins with chubby, middle-aged man Michael (voiced by David Thewlis), who’s famed as a self-help author but hates everything about his life. So bored is he with his entire existence that to him everyone else, no matter age or gender, has the same face and voice (all are provided by Tom Noonan). Out on promotional duties for his latest book in a bland hotel, Michael hears the shocking ring of an unfamiliar voice. He chases it and meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a woman who looks thrillingly different and, Michael hopes, presents the promise of a life outside the blankness.
Using stop-motion puppets allows Michael’s identikit world to be realised in a way it couldn’t in live action without a big budget, but the puppets give something deeper to the story. They’re not quite people; they’re not under their own control. Yet like all Kaufman’s work, while there are all sorts of intellectual knots to be unpicked, it’s not joyless navel gazing. It’s funny and touching. A sex scene between Michael and Lisa is inherently amusing – they’re both made of plastic – but there’s something in its awkwardness and the way the animators go to the effort of convincingly wobbling a belly or an ageing puppet buttock that makes it more human than most film sex. Everything’s aided by superb voice work by Thewlis and Leigh.
Like almost all Kaufman’s work it’s a waste of time to try to understand every aspect of the film, but that’s not necessary. You just need to feel it and despite not featuring real, living beings Anomalisa thrums with life and emotion. It’s extraordinary.