It’s been nearly eight years since we have had a Charlie Kaufman project. Eight years! Forget whatever ever childhood property had a lackluster adaptation this weekend, that is a true crime against cinema. If it had not been for a previously written radio play and a Kickstarter campaign, we may never have got to see Anomalisa on any kind of screen. It is his first cinematic endeavour since Synecdoche, New York, which had a timid reception critically and commercially but is now seen by many as being one of the best films of the 21st Century (including by me).
Here Kaufman took the only direction he could go after a project as big as his debut directing feature, which is something smaller in scale and more streamlined. He also took to working with a co-collaborator, here Duke Johnson (of Moral Orel) to bring this stop motion world to life, with that teamwork smoothing of the rougher edges of Kaufman’s absurdity. This may the easiest Kaufman film to understand yet, but all the idiosyncrasies, surrealism and general ennui is brought into full focus.
This is mainly focused through the eyes of Michael (David Thewlis), a motivational speaker who finds it difficult to find the same kind of human connection that he tells others to convey through his books. This is especially true seen as everyone else in the movie is voiced by Tom Noonan, and they all share the same face (the building this is mainly set is the Fregoli Hotel, a reference to a similar existing condition). That is expect for the (half)titular Lisa, voiced by Jennifer Jason Lee (between this and the Hateful Eight, she deserves her comeback to be huge in scale).
They find solace in each other’s company, like a sexual version of the relationship in Lost in Translation. But with the movie being set ten years, in the Bush administration, we see the decade malaise of this pair through the benefit of Kaufman and Johnson’s hindsight. Through their time together the infatuation/ennui becomes more complex, more human (and with the best puppet sex scene since Team America), that sees allegiances split, but not empathy.
The creative decisions of puppets and three actors could be seen as a gimmick, but like all great gimmicks it is utterly inseparable from the ideas and the world. Other than a couple of sci-fi movies, this is the one movie where the uncanny valley of the actors is always intentional, always clashing with the emotions and situations to both be at odds and serve the characters. It’s origins as a sound play also serve the atmosphere, beginning with a cavalcade of voices and intertwining with Carter Burwell’s score in a way that makes the emotions of the actors voices – all of whom do a phenomenal job – and the emotions of music almost one in the same.
Now, this is the first Charlie Kaufman project I’ve seen (bearing in mind I, nor anyone else apparently, has seen Human Nature) where I could see where story beats were going to go (here by the time Lisa was introduced). Now, predictability is not necessarily a bad thing, but it did bring to mind the transition to the final third of the movie is quite abrupt. Also, for a ninety minute film, there are detours such as a scene in a sex toy shop and diatribes on George Bush that, although funny and thematically relevant, break away from the focus.
But I can’t pretend to have taken in every nuance of this movie. In the end, like the lead character, things began to wash over me to the point where all I could do was wallow in the strange beauty (and think of how weirdly poetic Cyndi Lauper lyrics can be). This movie, like so many, will be one to change through experience, both of itself and from life in general, and I can’t wait to unlock each one of those complexities. It’s just good to have Charlie Kaufman back.