Mad Max: Fury Road, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Revenant – 2015 was the year filmmakers, even those with the largest of budgets, harnessed practical effects to convey big stories. To kick off 2016, the stop motion animated Anomalisa moves to even humbler ground, painstakingly capturing the movements of miniature, life-like puppets to tell a story much smaller and more personal in scale.
Written and co-directed by Charlie Kaufman, the writer behind notably surreal movies like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Anomalisa might be one of the more straight-forward stories Kaufman’s told, on paper. The film follows Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis, aka Remus Lupin), a middle-aged motivational speaker and author whose life has set into monotony and emptiness. Stone has a wife and child at home, but spends his time during a business trip trying to figure out why he walked away from previous relationships, and why everything and everyone sounds and looks the same to him. When Stone meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a fan of his book about customer service, he feels a reprieve from the monotony and emptiness he sees elsewhere, and he tries to hold on to that feeling by kindling a romance with her.
Stone confesses to others that he thinks he has psychological issues, and the film places him in the “Fregoli” hotel – a clear nod to the Fregoli delusion, a disorder in which a person believes multiple people are all one person. To add to this effect, Tom Noonan voices dozens of small roles throughout the film. Stone’s wife, his child, his lost love, his taxi driver, his waitress: everyone sounds exactly the same to him. You can take this as a literal interpretation of life with the disorder, or are a more figurative interpretation for a more common and relatable issue of sameness, of repetition, of aging, of loss. Either way – it hurts.
One of the most remarkable things about Anomalisa is, obviously, the way the film looks. Though the puppets look and feel fake to start with, seams and all, as they begin to take on very real quirks and dialogue, the “animated” feeling to them falls away, leaving a movie that is emotionally indistinguishable from a film with on-screen actors. Much of the credit goes to the writing. While an emotional story, the devil is in the details, and Anomalisa sprinkles hilarious, small moments throughout that help us relate to Stone and the characters around him. These moments also help to lighten what could feel like a bit of an emotional slog, as Stone comes to grips with his internal crisis.
Stunning visuals and writing aside, the voice acting delivered by Thewlis, Leigh, and Noonan are what really help the film punch through whatever disadvantages an animated approach could give such an emotional and nuanced story. Whether the feelings behind it resonate with you or not, the technical craft and imagination behind the film alone are a reason to see it.