Anomalisa — film review: ‘Wonderful, haunting’

An improbably brilliant film featuring computer-generated puppets, co-directed by Charlie Kaufman
'Anomalisa' features the voices of David Thewlis as Michael Stone and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lisa Hesselman

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It must have seemed, to anyone first listening, the most doomed concept in feature film history. Well, to almost anyone. Kickstarter subscribers were clearly an exception; they made the project possible. Laptop Rockefellers? Reckless web chancers? Yes, they might co-fund a forlornly seriocomical puppet-animation movie based on an original play by a famous/infamous Hollywood oddball. The film’s unlikely hero is a middle-aged self-help author having a one-night stand in a dowdily expensive Cincinnati hotel, on the eve of a conference. The film’s title is even less promising: no one, on a first sighting, will understand it — Anomalisa.

Imagine the pitch, if there had been one. “We’ll be making the film with computer-printed puppets. Most of the female characters are dubbed with male voices.” (We learn why eventually.) “And the themes are despair, loneliness and Fregoli syndrome.” That’s the condition in which you believe everyone else is the same person in different guises. “Fregoli” is also the name given to the hotel.

But yes — by now you’re ahead of me — the film is wonderful, haunting, indelible, incredible. Co-directed by Charlie Kaufman, screenwriter of Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (and author of that source stage/radio play), with animator Duke Johnson, it’s an inspired miniature with unstrung (in almost every sense) marionettes. It’s about madness, male menopause and the redemptive possibilities of love. And it’s set in a world hilariously exact and horrific: a hotel that ticks all the jet-age alienation boxes and resembles Hell remade for a Thunderbirds convention.

Why is Anomalisa so funny-tragic? Because it catches our off-guard selves. Voiced with an anxiety-edged northern English burr by David Thewlis, “Michael Stone” is an Everyperson everyone can identify with, at least in — say — the mutely screaming hours of early morning insomnia or the quiet but ineluctable panic of advancing age. Comfy enough, prosperous enough, acclaimed enough, Michael is walking towards a void in his life as large as a pothole.

Kaufman and Johnson’s puppets are quaint yet spooky, rudimentary yet lifelike. In early scenes they arrive as if on a conveyor belt of crafted satirical idiosyncrasy: the yappy taxi driver, the reception clerk on social autopilot, the deluxe catatonia of the cocktail lounge. But then Michael meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a kooky brunette as needy as he. Cue the one-night romance. Cue the melody of mated hearts.

It’s absurdly touching, this dark/light night of the soul, up to and including the puppet sex scene that — with apologies (or none) to Team America — goes beyond the zany-incongruous to find a tender, delicate, picayune poignancy. The last scenes restore us to a world where nightmare reigns, not least in a sinisterly staffed hotel basement that out-Kafkas Kafka. But our hero may now have found the key to coping. It’s the skeleton key love always supplies: the one showing us that everyone we were afraid of before is only, like us, a lost soul hoping to find himself, just once or briefly, before time’s final tolling.

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