Anomalisa movie review: Charlie Kaufman's adult animation is a complete treat

Original: David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh lend their voices to 'Anomalisa'.

Paul Whitington

Charlie Kaufman is a true original, and while he doesn't make many films, the ones he has certainly stick in your mind. I remember watching his first, Being John Malkovich, back in 1999, and being deeply impressed by the imagination and sheer nerve of a writer prepared to set an entire drama inside a movie star's mind. In Adaptation (2002), Kaufman created two fictional versions of himself in order to have an extended argument, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) tackled the vexed question of memory by imagining that we could erase it.

Primarily known as a writer, he branched out into direction with his eccentric 2008 film, Synecdoche, New York, which starred the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as a hypochondriac theatre director who rents a huge warehouse and rehearses an elaborate play based on his own life, complete with miniature sets. It was brilliant, but an acquired taste, similar to this new film.

Anomalisa belongs to that rare and unsettling genre, the adult animation, and tells the story of a middled-aged self-help guru who appears to have reached the end of himself.

Michael Stone arrives in Cincinnati to give a talk about his latest book, and retreats nervously to his hotel room. He seems distracted, and despite his profession, is spectacularly bad at human interactions. He phones his wife but is cool, even distant, and as soon as he puts the phone down looks up an old girlfriend.

Michael's in the grip of a mid-life crisis, possibly something even more serious. He's become alienated from everyone around him, so contacts his ex Bella in the hope of salvaging a past love. When she turns up at the hotel bar to meet him, Bella is understandably suspicious: Michael left her suddenly a decade before without even pausing to explain himself.

That reunion goes as badly as one might expect, and Michael is alone in his room again when he hears a laughing female voice passing in the corridor. He follows it and finds Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a shy young secretary who's come to Cincinnati with a friend in order to hear him speak. They go for drinks, and one thing leads to another, but Michael's need for intimacy threatens to destabilise his well-ordered life.

Anomalisa is based on a stage play Kaufman wrote in 2005, and apparently the author was very dubious when the idea of turning it into a stop-motion animation was first mooted.

He needn't have worried, because his co-director Duke Johnson has done a brilliant job of rendering Kaufman's characters in all their mournful splendour using tiny figurines created using 3D printers. This bleak and startling technique brings Kaufman's Kafkaesque story brilliantly to life, and makes Michael's dilemma seem paradoxically urgent, and real.

As narkily voiced by David Thewlis, Michael Stone seems ground down and exasperated by modern life's banality, and almost seems to have become convinced that he's the only one truly feeling anything. He's not right in the head, and as the film proceeds we begin to notice that everyone else's voices sound eerily the same. Tom Noonan does a terrific job voicing dozens of different characters, a tactic that enforces Michael's isolation and loneliness.

Lisa's is the only voice that sounds different, and not surprisingly he falls in love with it. Their gauche courtship is touching, but hopelessly naive, and a brilliant love-making scene punctures Hollywood glamorisations of such encounters.

This being Kaufman, Anamolisa is very funny, but there's also a sense of the impossibility of real human communication that reminds one of Beckett, and Pinter. And Michael is a kind of suburban King Lear, railing impotently against the grim and inescapable realities of life.

This is an astonishingly original and vital film, which uses an unlikely medium to tell it like it is.

Anomalisa (15A, 89mins)