Charlie Kaufman's "Anomalisa" Plays Like A Future Classic

If it isn’t already clear that the final weeks of 2015 belonged to Jennifer Jason Leigh, film history should see to it. The actress nearly burgled Quentin Tarantino’s Christmas Day release “The Hateful Eight” out from under Samuel L. Jackson, only to follow that up less than a week later with the NY/LA release of Charlie Kaufman’s instant stop-motion animation classic “Anomalisa.” In it, Leigh delivers a voice acting clinic that’s alternately accessible and enigmatic, bouncing off co-star David Thewlis so well you’d swear they performed their vocals in the same room.

In fact, they did. As recounted by the “Being John Malkovich” writer in a post-screening Q&A at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, he and co-director Duke Johnson went against decades of voice acting tradition, staying true to the picture’s roots as a sound play.

But there’s really nothing about “Anomalisa” that isn’t remarkable, from its crowdfunding approach (it was partially financed by 5,570 backers on Kickstarter), its stunningly ornate model work, and a final product whose puppets are more human than any human character in a film this year.

Thewlis, best known for playing Remus Lupin in the “Harry Potter” series, voices main character Michael Stone, a deeply unhappy self-help author holed up in a Cincinnati hotel and convention center where he’s due to give a speech. From the moment Michael steps off his flight and into a cab, Kaufman’s eccentricities are put center stage, manifesting themselves in funny, poignant ways.

Most notably, every last supporting character (male and female) is voiced by character actor Tom Noonan, a stroke of genius that reinforces Michael’s splintering mental state. Likewise, the way the puppets’ faces are designed gives way to endless interpretative possibilities, beginning with mask-like indentations and extending to the way they appear to flicker at different points in the story.

Act one is a deliberate mix of banality and dreariness, with Michael lovelessly speaking to his wife and son back home and staring into the space that is his beautifully bland hotel room.

It’s when he meets two fans staying down the hall that his – and the film’s – world is turned upside down.

Thirty-something Lisa Hesselman (Leigh) is adorably awkward in Michael’s presence, clearly trying to downplay her fandom. But her crush sees right through her and returns the infatuation twofold. He lights up at the mere sight of her, not to mention that she sounds nothing like Tom Noonan.

Over the course of the night the pair experience puppy love, then sex (in a surprisingly affecting love scene), all perfectly encompassing the rush of meeting someone new. Lisa’s clumsy acapella performance of a Cyndi Lauper classic is a showstopper – cute, funny, and sad – Kaufman getting our hopes up just before he pulls the rug out from under us.

“Anomalisa” leaves not an emotion untouched or an existential question unasked. Its etherealness is not unfamiliar territory for Kaufman, but his way of making the familiar seem unfamiliar carries the day, as always, leaving us with an experience we’ve never had before and are unlikely to ever have again. Recommended.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Also watch: “Being John Malkovich” / “The Grand Budapest Hotel

Release Date: December 30, 2015 (Limited)
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson
Screenwriter: Charlie Kaufman
Starring: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan
MPAA Rating: R (for strong sexual content, graphic nudity and language)