Posted by Joel Copling on January 28, 2016

It seems, before reaching its final act, that the preferred representative style chosen by co-directors Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman to tell the initially simple tale within "Anomalisa" is mostly arbitrary. The characters are a kind of combination between plastic puppets and clay figurines. A horizontal line runs across each bridge of a nose (giving at least this viewer the semi-constant feeling that he was watching characters who were all wearing eyeglasses before he had to shake himself and remind that it wasn't the case, but he digresses), which means the characters' mouths, noses, and chins are fundamentally separate from the eyes. It's an odd but effective brand of stop-motion, yet it seemed strangely distant--for a while, at least--from the story being told.

The opening half-hour, indeed, introduces us to Michael (voice of David Thewlis), a solemn, L.A.-based customer service representative from London who lands in Cincinatti for a single evening to speak on telephone etiquette at a convention. He's in a rather tetchy mood after an argument with his wife, he endures a bumpy flight from California to Ohio beside a passenger whose discomfort with flying inspires a pretty intimate defensive mechanism, and the driver in whose cab he rides is such a salesman for the city (try the cinnamon-seasoned chili that is laid over pasta, go to the zoo that is zoo-sized) that he's getting a minor headache from how boring it is already. In his hotel, room service has a button for every item in every course of every meal.

Everyone else in this city and in his life is the same. The facial features, beyond hair styles but including gender, are all similarly rounded and anonymous, whether it be the cabbie, the old flame with whom he meets to air out old differences, or the crushingly polite hotel bellhop who is more than available to help when Michael orders food (The way he seems to know the details of Michael's food without having heard them is funny). Nothing ever changes for this man, who is a sad-sack protagonist (Kaufman, who wrote the screenplay on the basis of his "sound play" of the same name, is by now popular for creating such protagonists, commonly male), and that seems to include everyone around him.

This changes when he meets Lisa, a fan of his self-help book regarding telephone etiquette for guest-service reps (amusingly titled "How Can I Help You Help Them?"). She's different, this one, and Michael becomes immediately smitten with her cute clumsiness and shy attitude. Her uniqueness is not only because her face, at which he cannot help staring for reasons that have nothing to do with the scar over her right eye, but also with the fact that she is voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh (in a stunning vocal performance that instantly engages us with a truly original character) and not by Tom Noonan (who, incidentally and quite impressively, voices all of the characters except these two). The pair share a sweet romance and a sex scene of gentle passion that feels like it's occurring between real people.

That's why it's so odd that this is told with stop-motion animation--until, of course, the third act, which presents us with a nightmarish vision of Michael's fears come alive. It segues into a different kind of waking vision of that nightmare come to life, but "Anomalisa" (the title coming from a pun and nickname attributed to Lisa by Michael when he realizes how special she is) is still oddly reassuring in its general hopefulness. It might smartly cut the cord of the central romantic tension by the time the second-to-last scene (and, perhaps, before that when we realize how attuned Michael isn't to relationships like this), but it's with a pragmatic air, rather than the mournful one we expect from Michael himself. It's quite affecting stuff.

Film Information

Featuring the voices of David Thewlis (Michael), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Lisa), and Tom Noonan (Everyone Else).

Directed by Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman and written by Kaufman, based on his sound play.

Rated R (sexual content, graphic nudity, language).

90 minutes.

Released in select cities on December 30, 2015.