As if to show that the Oscars can still gesture towards meritocracy, the emotionally wild and tangled stop-motion effort Anomalisa is actually, amazingly, one of the five nominees for Best Animated Feature. It doesn’t have a chance in hell of winning — not against a Pixar film — but I’ll be rooting for it just the same. Anomalisa is the first film in seven years by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich), who shares his directorial credit with stop-motion artist Duke Johnson (the Christmas episode of Community, among other things). Kaufman’s screenplay began life as a “sound play”; that it has become something often ravishingly visual, wrought in perhaps the most tactile of animated media, is one of the film’s many ironies.
The movie follows the slumping figure of Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis and sculpted to look a bit like Edward Woodward), a motivational author specializing in advice for customer service reps. Michael checks into a fancy Cincinnati hotel before a scheduled lecture, and as he interacts with various people we can perceive his problem: Everyone other than Michael, male and female, young and old, is voiced by Tom Noonan, who doesn’t do much to differentiate each person vocally. That isn’t Noonan’s fault, it’s a major theme in the movie: To Michael, everyone has begun to sound the same, as though the entire world spoke with the same vaguely creepy voice. (There’s a paranoid delusion that everyone you meet is the same person, and the film’s hotel, La Fregoli, is named after it.)
Michael wades numbly in a sea of Noonans until he meets Lisa, voiced shyly and affectingly by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Lisa can’t stop putting herself down, and she has rather banal things to say, but Michael can’t get enough of her voice; it’s been so long since he’s heard anything but Tom Noonan. (No offense meant to Noonan, who does have a nice way with speech — and who has directed some underseen films that could have inspired Kaufman himself — but listening to him all the time might be like being stuck inside the “Malkovich Malkovich” scene in Being John Malkovich.) Since Lisa doesn’t sound like anyone else, she is an anomaly — hence, Anomalisa. Michael invites Lisa back to his room, they talk, she sings, he weeps, they make love. If you think Kaufman will leave well enough alone, though, you don’t know Kaufman.
Why is it Lisa, and not, say, her friend Emily, or Michael’s ex Bella, or a sullen waitress, who speaks with the voice that unlocks Michael’s soul? We’re not meant to know. She distinguishes herself by her lack of sameness — aside from her voice, she has a slight disfigurement near her right eye, hidden by a sheet of streaked hair — but though she sounds appealing, an aural oasis for Michael and for us, she doesn’t really stand apart in terms of personality or intellect. This is, if anything, an even more damning detail and nail in Michael’s coffin. Is it possible to objectify a woman by her voice the way one would with her physical attributes? If so, Michael manages it.
Anomalisa fits perfectly with Kaufman’s other oddball, theatre-of-the-absurd efforts that devote a large number of moving parts to tell small stories that are really the biggest stories. In Kaufman’s only other directorial outing, the astounding Synecdoche, New York, he focused on art as life and vice versa. Here he meditates on love and how rare it is to find the real deal, and how common it is for the lonely person to lunge at anything that seems like love. Michael sits across from Lisa at breakfast and realizes, perhaps for the first time, that it isn’t her, it isn’t any of the people who cause him pain; it’s him. This is all done — beautifully — in stop-motion because Michael is manipulated by forces beyond his control. Anomalisa is a great film. Charlie Kaufman isn’t getting any younger, though, and we’ve spent seven years without any movies from him. Here’s hoping the next one gets financed more easily.