Charlie Kaufman’s ‘Anomalisa’ Is A Strange, Wonderful Tragicomedy About The Insanity Of Desire

Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s stop-motion Anomalisa might be a tough sell. It has an obtuse title, it’s hard to describe without spoiling, and bears more than a passing similarity to that South Park episode where Stan turns 10 and everything starts to sound like sh*t to him. Anomalisa‘s protagonist is a bit like Stan. You could also look at it as Lost In Translation‘s more brutally honest cousin. It’s not life-affirming in the traditional sense, but for those of us who find joy in having our feelings of alienation explained through clever, lucid metaphors, it’s exciting and inspiring and wonderful, the best kind of movie.

I loved this film. It’s easy to get burned out when you’re watching two or three movies a day for a week straight (case in point), but then a movie like Anomalisa comes along, strange and surprising and creative and hilarious, and reminds me why I spend so much time watching movies.

Anomalisa‘s protagonist is “Michael Stone,” a lonely author (he’s written a book about customer service) in Cincinnati for a night (try the chili!) to speak at a convention (about customer service). The characters are all these sort of GI Joe-esque moving dolls (the fuzz on their fabric subtly changes between shots, creating a cool, subtle effect that’s a little like stalks of wheat blowing in the breeze). There’s little attempt to hide their seams or construction, but they’re not overly chintzy or stylized either. That you can move freely between laughing at them as goofy dolls and identifying with them as human beings with thoughts and complex emotions is just one of Anomalisa‘s beautiful dichotomies.

We identify with Stone, who seems beset on all sides by boring dildos and talking turds with hair. People, aren’t they the worst? The whole film basically consists of Stone trying to get laid in his hotel — or rather, trying to form one meaningful human connection, where sex is mostly an extension of that impulse. Stone is voiced by David Thewlis (an unassuming Brit you may remember from War Horse), and everyone else in the world is voiced by Tom Noonan (a classic “that guy” in the ultimate “that guy” role). Everyone else, that is, until Stone meets Lisa, voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh, and thus, an anomaly in the world. Hence, “Anomalisa.” Lisa works in customer service and sings Cyndi Lauper songs with her eyes closed. Well done, Lisa.

Theoretically, “Nothing Much Happens” — Stone takes a cab from the airport, Stone tries to reconnect with an ex-girlfriend, Stone showers and takes a piss — but in practice that’s not true at all, because in Kaufman’s hands, every mundane interaction is a labyrinth of odd surprises. Kaufman has a genius for recognizing the humor in minute interactions (like people recognizing a malapropism halfway through a sentence and doubling back), and this, coupled with his penchant for breaking the rules of the known universe in his fiction, make him a bit like a fantasist Larry David. Does anyone combine big thoughts with small ones as well as Charlie Kaufman?

It would be technically true to say that Anomalisa often depicts the mundane, but it’s the how that matters. For instance, a person taking a shower may be mundane, but an anatomically-correct stop motion doll with a flabby stomach and an average sized dick taking a shower is… well, art.

What’s put people off about Charlie Kaufman in the past, and one of the things I like so much about his writing, is that it’s a mix of thematically-lean plotting and deliberate non-sequitur (I could more or less describe Anomalisa‘s entire concept in a single sentence, which would both spoil it and not do it justice). Some things that happen matter lots, and some are just superfluous flourishes. The action will move from something so central to the plot to a character pointing at his aquarium saying, “Those are leprechaun fish. They’re the ones with the… Irish faces.”

That line had me laughing each subsequent time I thought about it, long after the scene was over, to the point that I almost had to leave the theater to compose myself. Why is that so funny? It’s like a scab I can’t stop picking. It’s dumb-smart and universal-unique in a way that feels entirely logical.

Stone, who’s outwardly friendly, even gregarious, and not the weird loner Charlie Kaufman haters might assume him to be, is on the verge of losing his mind, and it’s all rendered externally. There are few things more boring to me than a character struggling with some internal conflict, that manifests itself in an actor frowning like he has indigestion while struggling to complete basic tasks (you know those Homeland episodes about Carrie’s OCD? Infuriating.). By contrast, Kaufman and Johnson’s Stone is having an existential crisis, thinking everyone in the world is the same person, while giving a speech about customer service, to a convention of customer service professionals, telling them how to treat every customer like a unique individual, while every so often going off script and breaking into rants about the military-industrial complex. It’s sad and funny and bizarre and relatable all at once.

The genius of Anomalisa is that you could read it as cynical, but it’s not just about alienation and the difficulty of forming real connections. It’s also a beautiful tragedy about the fleeting but all-consuming nature of attraction. You know how in Eternal Sunshine, love is this nightmarish, f*cked up tornado of exhausting events that you can’t wait to do again? Anomalisa is a lot like that, a perfect portrait of universal emotions rendered as temporary insanity.

Grade: A+

Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.