It’s an unforgettable experience when a filmmaker just clicks with you. When you watch their work, and you can’t help but revisit it in the mind over and over and over. Sometimes, it can be because they just grabbed you on a purely entertaining level, like Steven Spielberg, while others, there is a philosophical viewpoint that helps illuminate your own, like Andrei Tarkovsky. The moment that Charlie Kaufman became that type of filmmaker for me was with his 2002 comedy with Spike Jonze, “Adaptation.,” and he hasn’t let go since, especially after Michel Gondry’s and his masterpiece, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” and his own directorial debut, “Synechdoche, NY,” which is his most challenging work to date, but no less rewarding. In his follow-up as a director, he has pushed himself further in exploring his favorite subject matter, the nature of the human mind, and how connections with others are vital to our lives, with a stop-motion animated marvel that is unlike anything else we’ve seen from Kaufman up to this point, although I couldn’t help but be reminded of his script for the 1999 film, “Being John Malkovich,” throughout the film.
Kaufman does not tell his story alone, however, but co-directs it with Duke Johnson, who is best known for his work on a terrific stop-motion Christmas episode for the Dan Harmon sitcom, “Community.” (Harmon is a producer on this film, by the way, as is another “Community” alum, half of the current Marvel Universe leading team, Joe Russo.) Unfortunately, I missed the very beginning, but it wasn’t difficult to get caught up with the story of Michael Stone (voiced by the wonderful David Thewis), a motivational speaker who specializes in customer service, who comes in to Cincinnati to give a lecture. He only is staying for the night, but as he talks with the cab driver from the airport, old memories start to pop up as we start to wonder if more won’t be in store for Michael. He mentions having to get a toy for his son on his trip, and the driver mentions a store that is still open late at night. He gets to the hotel, and settles in for the night, not really making small talk or doing any connecting with anyone, not that you would, but we see that everyone has the same face, and very much the same voice (provided by Tom Noonan, who did great work in “Synechdoche,” and is equally delightful here). Michael is led up to his room, turns on the TV briefly before ordering room service. He then makes an impromptu call to an old flame, who agrees to meet him for a drink. She looks lovely, but has the same voice and face we’ve seen on everyone else who isn’t Michael. Something is not right about this encounter, and it’s not long before she storms out of the hotel bar, leaving him little room to recover. After a trip to that store the driver mentioned, which turns out (to our lack of surprise) to be a sex toy store, he makes his way back to his hotel, and gets a feeling that a friend is in one of the rooms. He begins knocking on doors, and finally knocks on one occupied by Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and her friend, who are actually in town for his lecture. Something about Lisa captures his attention, and he is immediately transfixed by her, although she is shy and reserved compared to her friend. They go back up to their floor, and Lisa joins Michael in his room. He keeps her talking, and something is awakened in him for the first time in the movie, and we suspect, in a while. This is a real connection, and it’s something he has been missing from his life for a while now.
From the moment Michael and Lisa end up back in Michael’s room, “Anomalisa” comes alive in the most remarkably funny and touching ways. Before, it was a clever, devious observational comedy, but as soon as Michael invites Lisa to his room, we see Kaufman’s true purpose for not just the film, but telling it in stop-motion, come to life. The puppets Johnson and his cohorts use are intricate in their detail and unique in their look, with faces that allow for the faces of each character to be the same. Michael sees the world, and the people he meets, as all part of a mass that makes him feel isolated, like he’s the only person in the world. Lisa is the only one that stands out, and that she sees herself as unremarkable is perhaps why he is drawn to her. He senses something about her that he hasn’t seen in another person, even his own wife, in a while. This story could only succeed in animation, and Kaufman and Johnson have a distinct, reality-based vision that makes the surreal touches (such as everyone having the same face and voice, apart from Michael and Lisa) all the more plausible, yet dream-like. (The cinematography by Joe Passarelli, which favors an impressionistic feel over a more natural one, is a big part of that.) As Michael and Lisa continue their connection, we think we know where they are headed, and Kaufman takes them there, but in a powerfully sensual manner that is familiar to anyone who has had that deep intimacy with another person. Afterwards, we take a real leap into the surreal, but thanks to all we have seen before, it has stakes that are profound for both Michael and Lisa. Kaufman earns the ending, filled with sadness and hopelessness, yet also featuring a grace note that hints at a possible future of pleasure, so long as Michael holds on to that connection he made in the hotel room. In a career filled with high-wire acts, Charlie Kaufman has made, arguably, his most daring. What cannot be argued, though, is the success he and Johnson have in making something that is wholly original, and deeply affecting in how it goes to the heart of the human condition, and sees hope in even the loneliest moments.