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The films of Charlie Kaufman are not for the squeamish. They’re not graphically violent, like the latest Tarantino joint, but he’ll explode your head just the same. His subject is everyday violence—the acute emotional pain of existence—and he leaves just as many body parts in his wake. He can break your heart (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), blow your mind (Adaptation), or cut off your very understanding of the world at the knees (Synecdoche, New York).
The only respite he gives his audience lies in his ideas. We spend as much time marveling at the postmodern philosophy of Kaufman’s films as we do actually feeling them, which makes the pain a little easier to bear. Take his latest, Anomalisa. It’s a story born from heartbreak; an emotional gut-punch that’s considerably softened by a bold and dazzling aesthetic choice.
Michael Stone (David Thewlis), the film’s 50-something protagonist, is suffering from a severe case of midlife ennui. By all appearances, his life is a success. He’s an author and sought-after speaker in the field of customer service, and he has a loving wife and a young, healthy son. And yet his life is a mess. He feels isolated and depressed, and his suffering is manifested in a crippling psychological disorder: Every person he meets has the exact same voice.
As Michael travels to Cincinnati for a public speaking engagement, checks into his hotel, and settles in for the night, he’s inundated with the same dull but amiable tone (actor Tom Noonan, playing almost every other character). So when he finally hears a different one in the hotel hallway—a lilting, feminine timbre—he drops everything to find it. It belongs to Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a customer service rep who has come to hear Michael speak. He makes her acquaintance, and after a few quick drinks at the bar, they retire to his room to further explore their unique connection.
Oh, and did I mention they are all animated? Anomalisa is shot in stop-motion, although the characters look more like the puppets featured in Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich. They move with a halting grace, and their faces are bifurcated by a horizontal line. The aesthetic was probably a practical choice; I’m not sure a live-action version of this story would be that interesting, and the facial plates allow Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson to achieve a wider range of expression. But it also serves the material: Although the subject matter is dark and very adult, the characters behave much like children—with an affecting mix of sensitivity and enthusiasm—and the film takes on the feel of a darkly human fable. The line on their faces underlines the idea that all these characters (indeed, everyone in Kaufman’s world) is in some way broken, or barely put together.
It’s emotionally intense and wonderfully internal, but in the final third, Kaufman’s big brain gets the better of him. A jarring dream sequence and an inexplicable foray into political content nearly derails the entire film. Kaufman has earned our trust and imagination, so it’s tempting to simply accept these diversions as part of some absurdist master plan, but a viewer shouldn’t have to try so hard to make it work.
Thankfully, he returns his focus to where it belongs for the film’s poignant conclusion. By then, our brains have returned to their proper place, but our hearts have been broken, healed, and broken all over again.
Anomalisa opens Friday at Landmark’s E Street Cinema.