We're there among the puppets.
Director: Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich)
Screenplay: Kaufman from his play.
Cast: David Thewlis, voice (The Theory of Everything); Jennifer Jason Leigh, voice (Hateful Eight)
Runtime: 90 min.
by John DeSando
“Look for what is special about each individual. Focus on that.” (Michael Stone, voice of David Thewlis)
“And so it goes,” Kurt Vonnegut might have said about Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s Anomalisa, an eerie stop-motion animation about a customer service motivational speaker who goes through the usual boredom of a night in a lonely city. Lost in Translation’s tepid welcome of a fading movie star (Bill Murray) comes to mind immediately.
The Michael Stone quote headlining this review is a cliché he uses in his speech to his customer service conference attendees. Yet it masks the challenge Michael faces each moment of his existential agony: With a world of puppet-like, look alike creatures, Michael searches not only for their individuality but also for his place among them and the happiness that is eluding him.
The defining action for him is his romantic relationship before his lecture with one of his fans from the admiring audience. Lisa (voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a demure, plain young call-center rep thrilled by his attention and hardly versed in the steps of romance. Yet, because of her quirky individuality and his limited charm, they get along, giving Michael a brief moment of rebellion (he does have a family, after all).
There’s a disguised depth this animation gives in the face of not distinguished characters and even less action. However, the everyday business is weighted with the sympathy we may have for this lost middle-aged, unremarkable character. His searches, his losses are ours made unique in his being a puppet. Therein may be the grandeur of this animation: If identity is so difficult for a puppet to find, how insane is our human search?
Perhaps that is the genius of Charlie Kaufman. Look up his filmography on IMDb: It’s impressively odd and, well, brilliant. Just don’t expect anything extraordinary on the surface, except maybe a puppet sex scene. In the end the exterior banality will force you to look inside yourself for sympathy with the characters. Don’t despair because a night in another town isn’t usually that great anyway.
“Each person you speak to has had a day, some other days have been good, some bad.” Stone
John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.rr.com