When the philosopher says, “Hell is other people,” he, perhaps, means that in trying to figure ourselves out, we are beholden to the reflections and interactions with other people. Or maybe he is talking about the modern customer service experience. In what is sure undoubtedly a high-water mark in animated cinema, Anomalisa is an utterly adult portrait of middle-age loneliness. Anonymous hotel rooms and the myriad awkward social contracts we perform daily with strangers become the grist for intimate, whisper-quiet apocalyptic storytelling. Kaufman is one of the few ‘auteur screenwriters’ working in the United States today, and much like his previous work, the idea of ‘the self’ is intelligently deconstructed by way of bittersweet cinematic creativity.
Absent are the science fiction notions (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and the weird scale (Synecdoche, NY) of his previous work, Anomalisa‘s most unconventional aspect that it is stop-motion animated instead of live action.
The team of animators working for co-director Duke Johnson deliver, on a Kickstarter budget, a film that looks as wonderful as anything from Laika Studios (Coraline, The Box Trolls) while, literally, leaving in the seams on the faces of the puppets untouched. Usually, these are digitally erased in post, but here they are thematically relevant, and left in. The miracle of artifice is miracle enough, and in one of those artistic contradictions, probably enhances the honestly of it.
The story is a beguilingly delicate, often savagely funny man-meets-lady tale that takes place mainly in the most impersonal hotel of the most boring city in North America. Cincinnati: Try the local chili, visit the zoo, slit your wrists. Perhaps the town is not truly that bad, but we get it from the weary perspective of Michael Stone, a married, middle aged man visiting for couple of days to give a lecture based on his how-to book on customer service.
Stone is wearily voiced by versatile actor David Thewlis, perhaps best known to cinema lovers as the young angry street philosopher Johnnie in Mike Leigh’s Naked. The lonely man he plays here here is the straight laced, sold-out, compromised 180 degree inversion Johnnie. Both are still lost souls though. Thewlis can convey ‘drowning in his own murk’ better than pretty much ever actor working today, and here he does it only with his voice.