Michael Stone is in the business of helping others, but as Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s surreal, striking Anomalisa begins, it is he who most needs help.
The latest transmission from Kaufman, one of the most unique minds ever to find its way to Hollywood, Anomalisa is, at first glance, a paradox — the film concerns the most mundane settings (an airplane, an airport, a taxi and a hotel in Cincinnati) rendered in an extraordinary way (handmade puppets, rich with vivid, miniature detail).
As the deceptively simple story, written by Kaufman, unfolds, it becomes clear that Anomalisa, like so many compact fables before it, offers those who undertake the journey something as profound as it is poignant.
As Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) descends — literally and figuratively — into Cincinnati for a customer service conference, his life is one of numbing homogeneity. In a ingenious stroke, every other character Stone encounters — male or female, cab driver or room service waiter — is voiced by the same actor (Tom Noonan), painting Stone’s world in boring beige strokes of blandness.
Stone can’t connect with anyone or anything, until a chance meeting one night in a hotel corridor, where the sound of Lisa Hesselman’s voice (given life by Jennifer Jason Leigh) cuts through everything, and gives Stone hope for the first time in what feels like forever.
What makes Anomalisa more than a straightforward character study is Kaufman and Johnson’s deft use of stop-motion animation, which gives the hotel-bound film a surreal patina and further heightens the reality of an already borderline-absurd narrative.
Thewlis, Leigh and Noonan all give spectacular, nuanced performances — Thewlis in particular is remarkable as a man whose very life (and occasionally his body) is coming apart at the seams — and convey an intimacy that serves to give considerable emotional weight to the story.
Whether Michael Stone has really turned a corner in his life, or merely enjoyed a brief distraction from all that troubles him, is left unresolved at Anomalisa’s conclusion, but this much is certain: The audience won’t soon forget what it has experienced.
Directors: Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson
Stars: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan
Rated: R (strong sexual content, graphic nudity, language)
Run time: 90 min.