'Anomalisa' Is A Charlie Kaufman Movie Featuring Puppets. Yes, It's Weird

Dec 30, 2015
Originally published on December 30, 2015 5:29 pm

A guy who thinks everyone's the same meets a gal who's different. That could be the TV listing for Charlie Kaufman's extraordinary new film and latest weirdness, Anomalisa.

But that thumbnail description doesn't get at the weird, and the weird in this film is prodigious.

Start with the fact that in a world that looks otherwise real and natural, the leading man — motivational speaker Michael Stone — and all the folks around him are puppets, which are animated in stop-motion.

And except for Michael, they not only look the same — think crash-test dummies with different clothes and hairstyles — but they sound the same, too. His seatmate on the plane, the cabbie who picks him up at the airport, Michael's wife on the phone, his 5-year-old son, every staffer at his hotel, the characters in a movie on TV, an ex-girlfriend he gets in touch with — everyone.

Kaufman's Being John Malkovich spent an hour or so building up to a scene full of Malkoviches, all with that actor's face and cadences. This film, co-directed by Kaufman and Duke Johnson, starts there, and builds from a cacophony of voices (that are all Tom Noonan's voice) to a series of vignettes featuring Noonan-voiced characters so that by the time Michael is ensconced at the Fregoli Hotel, you're pretty fully in his world.

Calling the hotel the Fregoli, by the way, is an obscure, but very cool joke. The Fregoli delusion is the name of a psychiatric condition in which sufferers believe all the people around them are really incarnations of just one person, who is tormenting them.

Michael doesn't actually believe that, but he does see people as interchangeably unremarkable, and the film lets you see them that way too, even as it's making the unremarkable things they're doing, visually arresting — because, after all, they are puppets.

Michael for instance, engages in puppet showering, puppet profanity, puppet nudity and puppet hallucinations (where his jaw starts clacking and his face comes off in pieces as he looks in the mirror). It's in the middle of that hallucination that he hears something in the hallway that takes him utterly by surprise: a woman's voice, but more than that, a different voice.

Lisa, voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh. In a world of same, she's an anomaly — Anomalisa. Michael excitedly runs down the hallway, knocking on doors to no avail until, behind one, he hears her voice again, and invites her (and her roommate as an afterthought) to join him for a drink.

Michael is smitten, and Lisa is too. And that will lead to puppet sex, and puppet smoking after sex, and all manner of other things that would make Anomalisa intriguing to watch even if novelty were all it had going for it.

But what's fascinating is how the things that make the film different are the very things that make it emotionally engaging. David Thewlis' lonely stammer as Michael, Jennifer Jason Leigh's heartbreaking insecurity as Lisa, have a kind of universality when wedded to expressions on plastic figures you quite forget are plastic. And that lets filmmaker Kaufman tap into an existential loneliness most films can only hint at.

In Anomalisa, he's doing precisely what his characters are — reaching out, searching for a connection. And for 90 minutes in the theater, he finds it.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

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Charlie Kaufman's movies tend to send characters on seriously strange journeys - inner journeys - call them head trips. The title character in "Being John Malkovich," for instance, discovers that other people can access his brain. "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind" is about a man whose memories are in the process of being erased. NPR critic Bob Mondello says Kaufman's first animated film, "Anomalisa," is no exception.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: A guy who thinks everyone's the same meets a gal who's different. That could be the TV listing for Charlie Kaufman's new weirdness, but it doesn't get at the weird, and the weird in this film is prodigious. Start with the fact that in an on-screen world that looks otherwise real and natural, the leading man, motivational speaker Michael Stone, and all the folks around him are puppets animated in stop motion. And except for Michael, they not only look the same - like crash test dummies with different clothes and hairstyles - but they sound the same, too. The cabbie who picks him up at the airport...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ANOMALISA")

TOM NOONAN: (As cabbie) First time?

DAVID THEWLIS: (As Michael Stone) Yeah, checking out.

MONDELLO: Michael's wife on the phone...

NOONAN: (As Michael's wife) How was the flight?

MONDELLO: ...His five-year-old son...

NOONAN: (As Micheal's son) Hi, Daddy. I'm a pirate.

MONDELLO: ...And every staffer at his hotel...

NOONAN: (As hotel staffer) Dennis here will show you to your room.

(As Dennis) Right this way, sir. My name is Dennis.

MONDELLO: ...And an ex-girlfriend he gets in touch with.

NOONAN: (As Michael's ex-girlfriend) It's good to hear your voice.

THEWLIS: (As Michael Stone) Yours, too.

NOONAN: (As Michael's ex-girlfriend) (Laughter) I'm shaking.

MONDELLO: Charlie Kaufman's film "Being John Malkovich" built up to a scene full of Malkovichs all with that actor's face and cadences. This film starts there and builds from a cacophony of voices that are all actor Tom Noonan's voice...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ANOMALISA")

NOONAN: (As characters) (Unintelligible).

MONDELLO: ...So that by the time our leading man, who's voiced by David Thewlis, is ensconced in his hotel...

NOONAN: (As hotel staffer) Welcome to the Fregoli.

MONDELLO: ... You're pretty fully in his world. Calling the hotel the Fregoli, by the way, is an obscure but very cool joke. The Fregoli delusion is the name of a psychiatric condition in which sufferers believe all the people around them are really incarnations of just one person who is tormenting them. Michael doesn't actually believe that, but he does see people as interchangeably unremarkable. And the film lets you see them that way, too, even as it's making the unremarkable things they're doing visually arresting because, after all, they are puppets. Michael, for instance, engages in puppet showering...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ANOMALISA")

THEWLIS: (As Michael Stone) Hot.

MONDELLO: ...Puppet profanity...

THEWLIS: (As Michael Stone) Oh, cold. [Expletive]. [Expletive].

MONDELLO: ...Puppet nudity...

THEWLIS: (As Michael Stone) Oh, OK.

MONDELLO: And once he's out of the shower, puppet hallucinations where his jaw starts clacking and his face comes off as he looks in the mirror. It's in the middle of that hallucination that he hears something in the hallway that takes him completely by surprise.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ANOMALISA")

JENNIFER JASON LEIGH: (As Lisa) Anyway, I can't wait to see you when I get back. How's Thursday?

MONDELLO: A woman's voice - a different voice.

THEWLIS: (As Michael Stone) Jesus. Someone else.

MONDELLO: It's Lisa. In a world of same, she's an anomaly -

"Anomalisa." Worth pursuing, he runs down the hallway, knocking on doors to no avail, until...

THEWLIS: (As Michael Stone) I think I've got the wrong...

LEIGH: (As Lisa) Who's there, Em (ph)?

NOONAN: (As Emily) It's Mr. Stone - Michael Stone.

LEIGH: (As Lisa) Really? Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Hello. Oh, do I look awful? I was just taking my makeup off. Oh, my God. Oh, don't look at me.

THEWLIS: (As Michael Stone) No, no. You look lovely.

LEIGH: (As Lisa) I can't believe you're in our room. We came here from Akron just to hear you speak. Oh, my God. Please don't look at me.

THEWLIS: (As Michael Stone) Well, I'm certainly very flattered.

NOONAN: (As Emily) You can look at me.

LEIGH: (As Lisa) Emily. Is there something we can do for you? I mean, I don't mean that in a weird way, although - no (laughter). I'm kidding.

MONDELLO: Now Michael is smitten, and Lisa is, too. And that will lead to puppet sex and puppet smoking after sex and all manner of other things that would make "Anomalisa" fun to watch even if the novelty were all it had going for it. But what's fascinating is how the things that make the film different are the very things that make it emotionally engaging. David Thewlis' lonely stammer as Michael, Jennifer Jason Leigh's heartbreaking insecurity as Lisa have a kind of universality when wedded to expressions on plastic faces that you quite forget are plastic. And that lets filmmaker Kaufman tap into an existential loneliness most films can only hint at. In "Anomalisa," he's doing precisely what his characters are - reaching out, searching for a connection - and for 90 minutes in the theater, he finds it. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NONE OF THEM IS YOU")

NOONAN: (Singing) When I see a face or hear a name or am introduced to someone new, it doesn't matter. They're all the same, and none of them is you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.