Is it possible to be enthralled and depressed at the same time?
Anomalisa summons both feelings: marvelling at the film’s craft while lamenting the sad humanity on display. The eye delights, the spirit shrivels.
An animated drama co-directed by acerbic absurdist Charlie Kaufman (Synecdoche, New York) and stop-motion ace Duke Johnson, the film epitomizes what David Bowie calls “the poignancy of the everyday.”
It focuses on the narrow concerns and confines of Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a morose Englishman residing in L.A. who has made a good living but not much of a life.
He peddles inspiration as the author of How May I Help You Help Them?, a successful how-to book for customer service pros. Yet he’s unable to find much uplift for his own unhappy existence, which includes a wife and young son with whom he’s clearly not fully engaged.
The distancing is in part due to constant travel, which on this day brings him to Cincinnati, home of a world-class zoo and to-die-for chili. Michael is to give yet another speech about his book to eager customer service types.
His mood isn’t helped by the drab sameness of his hotel room — is there one design for all of North America? — and the dreariness of Cincinnati, the zoo and chili notwithstanding. The plaintive score by Carter Burwell, a frequent Kaufman collaborator, makes the ennui seem almost tragic.
Why does everybody look and sound alike, a parade of dull faces? (Hint: Google the name of Michael’s hotel, The Fregoli.)
But Michael has issues much deeper than boredom. Alcohol is a crutch to help him cope with what he thinks might be “psychological problems,” but which others would call callous behaviour. On a previous Cincinnati stint, he broke the heart of Bella, an ex-girlfriend who still lives in the city.
Michael meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a naïve customer services rep for a baked-goods firm, who has the room down the hall. She and her friend Emily drove all the way down from Akron just to hear his speech, never dreaming he might be interested in them personally.
The scenario is all too predictable, but Anomalisa — which wordplays on “anonymous,” “anomaly” and “Lisa” — brings astounding exactitude to the most mundane of activities, not least of which is a sex scene that rivals Team America for puppet lust.
The technical flair is amazing — those unnerving mask lines are deliberate, by the way — and the screenplay has the droll whimsy and intelligent angst that signifies Kaufman, who previously wrote Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Anomalisa is a triumph, if also a dispiriting one.