The hardest lesson to learn in life is that you can never rely on someone else to ensure your longterm happiness. True happiness comes from self-acceptance, and that is a far harder task many would care to admit. Anomalisa, the latest film from writer/director Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich) and co-director Duke Johnson, explores this and man’s eternal search for meaning through detailed claymation that offers a more honest perspective on the human experience than the vast majority of dramas released in the last year.
Michael Stone (David Thewlis), husband, father, and best-selling author, lives an unfulfilled existence where he spends the majority of his time fretting over the mundanity of everyday life. No matter where he goes or who he meets, Michael cannot shake the feeling everything is merely a copy of something else he has already experienced. Even his wife and son are no escape, as their voices have long blurred into the same dull tone that every outsider’s voice hits when traveling through Michael’s ear canal. Michael knows this is a rather horrendous way to feel, but it is his truth, and on the night we meet him he’s hoping something—anything—will shake the feeling of meaninglessness from his tired bones.
The setting for this night of desperation is Cincinnati, just one of many towns Michael has to visit while promoting his latest advice book, How May I Help You Help Them?. Michael settles into his hotel and immediately orders dinner. He also calls an old flame, a woman whose voice he hasn’t heard in more than a decade, and he asks her to meet for a drink. Her demeanor is not what Michael hopes to find, so he decides to end his night early with TV and bed—that is, until he hears a voice in the hall that is unlike any other voice he has ever heard. It’s a woman, an Ohio native named Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who plans on attending Michael’s presentation the following day, and for one reason or another Michael knows he must learn more about her. In fact, he wants to know everything because in that moment when her voice first met his ears Michael completely forgot about the way he felt in every moments before that split-second in time. This voice, this strange voice, gives him hope there may still be surprises left in life.
If you’ve made it this far in my review and still feel a little lost as to how a film like Anomalisa could possibly hope to tackle big existential ideas such as happiness and identity then you should know this title, like every film from Kaufman, offers far more than initially meets the eye. The plot of Anomalisa means little in comparison to the conversations had and the experiences of the characters who share them. Michael and Lisa are two complete strangers who, for one magical night, are able to free themselves from the concerns of everyday life. They also must face the harsh return to reality the comes with the rising sun, and they each do so in their own way. Our journey is one that follows Michael from start to finish, but without Lisa his arc would lack resonance with the viewer. For us, Lisa represents every farfetched idea or fantasy that crosses one’s mind when their day-to-day routine begins to feel stale. She is a temporary escape that comes with little chance of backlash or regret, but like anything that sounds too good to be true the promise of freedom found within her is a temporary one, or at least it appears that way to Michael.
There are only three voices in all of Anomalisa, which is another unique trait that plays well with Kaufman’s smart script. Thewlis and Leigh do the majority of the heavy lifting, and they each carry their responsibilities well, but just as much praise is due to Tom Noonan who has the job of bringing literally every other character to life. It’s a twist to the storytelling that may feel confusing at first, but as the various messages of the film begin to reveal themselves the approach becomes increasingly justified.
The fourth star of Anomalisa, though its place in order of importance is up for debate, is the film’s spellbinding animation. The term “claymation” tends to make one think of mythic creatures or fantasy based on the ideas of people like Tim Burton and molded out of colorful clay, but that is not what you find in this film. The beauty of Anomalisa’s sculpted universe is its often-picturesque take on seemingly normal people in normal situations doing normal things. This isn’t a movie where dreams and fantasy take precedent over human emotion, though they do play a role in highlighting Michael’s personal journey, and as such the most stunning elements of the animation are often found in the smallest details. Whether it’s the meticulously recreated scene from My Man Godfrey playing on the television in Michael’s hotel room or the efforts made to make every footstep resemble the actions of a real person, there is not a single sequence in this flick that doesn’t offer something technically (not to mention visually) impressive.
It’s rare that a major animated film comes along that is marketed strictly for adult audiences, and it’s even more unusual for such titles to garner much, if any critical acclaim. With its bold and honest approach to self-realization and the pain often inflicted on others as the result of our individual searches for meaning in existence, Anomalisa is nothing short of a cinematic miracle. I will go as far as to call it a marvel of our time, offering wit and insight into the often uncomfortable truth that is our strange and often chaotic journey on this rock called Earth without showing a single frame of actual reality. Kaufman has never been one to disappoint, but this film is in a league all its own, and it’s sure to be one of the few films from 2015 that people are still talking about in five or 10 years’ time.