Review: ‘Anomalisa’ is the most shattering experiment yet from Charlie Kaufman

“Anomalisa” changed my life.

Now, before you roll your eyes, I mean that literally. I would point out that films have changed my life before because they have played for me at the right time or, in a few cases, the wrong time, and I am sure they will change my life again.

Hell, if you want to make the argument that pretty much every single milestone I outlined in my recent 25 Years In LA series was because of or related to movies, I think it's a pretty safe argument to make. After all, I've said before that this is my church, the place I go to find my center, to be challenged, to grow, and to see the world around me through myriad eyes.

Sitting in the Princess of Wales Theater in Toronto, it was about halfway through “Anomalisa” when I realized I was having one of those experiences, that the film was drilling a hole directly into my brain, and that I was not going to be able to shake it when the lights came up. I should have expected something might happen. After all, this is the latest movie from Charlie Kaufman, and he's been doing this to me since 1999.

Charlie Kaufman became a favorite to film-loving weirdos everywhere with the release of “Being John Malkovich,” and little wonder. The combination of his ideas and the remarkable execution of those ideas by Spike Jonze was magic, like a hit of some brand-new drug you never knew existed. “Adaptation” absolutely ruined me the first time I saw it, and I still think it's one of the best films ever made about the creative process and the havoc it can play on people who spend their lives in its thrall.

That is not to say that every single thing he touches is amazing and perfect and great. I have given it a few tries, and “Human Nature” still doesn't work for me. More significantly, I find that I am deeply reluctant to give “Synechdoche, NY” another watch. I thought it was a film of big ideas but little discipline at all. And whether he follows a traditional structure or his own hand-made road map, the end result should still be something that works in some way. I think Kaufman swings for the fences because that's all he knows how to do. He gives everything of himself to a script. When I read “Frank and Francis,” an unproduced work of his, it felt like it was practically printed in his blood. He opens a vein for every new script, and he's okay with laying bare all of the absolute worst things about himself. Does it work every time? No. But it's the attempt itself that makes Kaufman such a compelling artist.

It's also the reason his films drill deep. Because he lays himself so bare, he is calling on his audience to have the same reaction, to meet him wide open, hoping that the unconventional will blow past our defenses. That's the hardest thing with art these days, getting past all the signal noise that we're all bombarded with non-stop. You can have the most worthwhile and important message in the world to share with people, but you have to somehow get their attention, and that is increasingly difficult. It's one of the reasons so many filmmakers work with shock as a primary tool. It's an easy way of piercing those defenses. In Kaufman's case, the weird is the first thing most people notice, but what lingers is the honesty underneath.

With “Anomalisa,” I think he's made his best film. He's certainly made something that is both more accessible than most of his films and more heartfelt. The weirdest thing about this film is just how deeply not-weird it is in terms of what it's saying. Even so, it's hard to explain, and part of that is because it's such a singular experience. First, there's the nature of the film, a stop-motion animated picture that was co-directed with Duke Johnson. You may not know his name, but if you saw the special stop-motion animated episode of “Community,” that was his work. That was done in an intentionally broad and cartoony style, very Rankin Bass, while “Anomalisa” is almost completely the opposite. This is all about subtle performance work in a world that feels very familiar, very real.

But sound is just as important to the film, if not more so. There are only three actors here. David Thewlis is Michael Stone, a businessman who specializes in lectures on customer service. He's on the road to give a speech, and the film takes its time as he rides in from the Cleveland airport, checks into his hotel, settles into his room. For anyone who travels as much as I do, there's quite a bit of detail work here that is very funny precisely because it perfectly captures just how one hotel blends into the next, and how familiar each room is precisely because that's the point. It's meant to give us this strange little box, familiar and safe, that we anchor ourselves to while in a new or unfamiliar place. I go a little crazy in hotel rooms at this point. It's easy to wake up and forget where I am precisely because they all feel the same. There have been mornings where it's taken me a moment to remember what continent I'm on, much less what city or why I'm there.

Everyone else that Michael encounters is played by Tom Noonan, and I mean everyone. It's part of the central conceit of the film, so man, woman or child, everyone is played by Tom Noonan, and one of the reasons this could only work as animation is because of the subtle way everyone is given some variation of the same face. Actually, I take that back, because the entire point of the film is that there is someone else, one other person, a woman who Michael meets at the hotel where he's staying. Her name is Lisa, and she's played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, and from the moment Michael meets here, there is an immediate urgency to everything he says and does, like he's just woken up and remembered something he has to do.

“Anomalisa” is an extraordinarily wise film about the reasons we turn to other people and the enormous difficulty of doing so. Michael is married with a child at home, but he's desperately lonely, and it isn't just about whatever relationship he has with his wife. When he's on the phone to them or face to face with them, he knows how to play the part of the loving doting husband and father, and he does it with gusto. But when he's alone in those anonymous hotel rooms, alone with himself, it's clear that he has a hollow inside of him, a place so empty and so lonely that nothing touches it. He looks to the faces of strangers or people from his past because he knows there must be something that fixes him, someone who completes him, something that will make him feel better. He just has no idea what it could be or who it might be.

I have never been lonelier than I was during the last few years of my marriage, and even now, that sounds crazy to me. I was in a house with my wife, my mother-in-law, my sister-in-law, my kids, and I still felt a sort of permanent sense of being alone, separate in some way from this life I'd built for myself. I could run down all the things that led to that feeling, but it would never make sense to anyone else from the outside. I can try to lay all the blame on my ex-wife, but that's not fair. Relationships fail for any number of reasons, and in the end, the only one you can be responsible for in a relationship is yourself. Michael Stone has a horrifying problem because he sees everyone else as one big mass, everyone looking at him with the same eyes, everyone speaking to him in the same voice. He needs to be delivered, needs to discover that missing piece, or he's going to go mad.

When he finally meets Lisa, he is amazed by her. She seems to have a real problem being comfortable in her own skin at first, and when Michael asks her to join him in his room, she is astounded. She's with a friend, and the friend is the one that men normally seem to like. Lisa is unsure why Michael would choose her, and it only gradually becomes clear to us as well. Jennifer Jason Leigh's performance here is as good as anything she's done in live-action, and that's saying something. The same is true of Thewlis, who hasn't given a performance that got this far under my skin since “Naked.”

As the two of them share this sustained banter-as-foreplay, Michael asks her to keep talking, amazed to finally hear a voice that cuts through all the clatter. Lisa keeps protesting that she's not beautiful or special, but none of that matters. Michael is captivated by her, and here's where I can't imagine this working any other way. In one long sequence over breakfast, we watch the entire arc of a love affair play out, and we learn just how deep Michael's sorrows truly go. When he professes his love, the title of the film becomes clear, because he sees this Lisa as an anomaly, the one person out of everyone who actually stands apart, who moves him because she is different, because she sees him clearly, and not because of anything external or because he believes he should. I can't think of any film that better captures that dawning feeling that you might have made a real connection with another person. This being Kaufman, nothing is easy or automatic, and the film is ultimately a story of heartbreak and dissatisfaction, and there is a raw, brutal sadness to the last ten minutes.

One thing the film made clear, though, is that the act of reaching out to another person is an act of courage, and if you are unable to ask for what you want, it is unlikely you will ever get it. That's one of those things that should be self-evident, but it is very easy to lose sight of it or let your various life experiences make you afraid of asking. So when I say that “Anomalisa” changed my life, it's because I was so affected by the film and by some of the moments in it that when I got out, I called someone I've been seeing lately and I said some words I'd been hoarding like gold up till now. I may have my own scar tissue to contend with, but it's too easy to simply hide from the world, too easy to simply deflect love out of fear. I'm not sure Kaufman believes that we ever get more than fleeting moments of connection with others, but I am sure that he believes those moments are worth chasing, and that they matter. The courage it took for him to make “Anomalisa” in as uncompromised a manner as he did was inspirational, and not only was it a highlight of this year's Toronto International Film Festival for me, but it also moved me to take a chance in my own life, one that should reap rich and real rewards moving forward. When I say it changed my life, I don't mean that I am finished by any means… only that I took a step forward I might not have otherwise, and change is something I've learned to embrace, because the alternative is unthinkable.

“Anomalisa” was purchased by Paramount, and I'm excited to see what they do with it.