Stop-Motion Despair Comedy Anomalisa Is Pure, Unleavened Charlie Kaufman

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Puppet on the set of Anomalisa. Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Animation — naturally expressionistic, unbound by any physical laws except the ones its animators set — can usher you deep into an artist’s inner world, and, on the evidence, the inner world of Charlie Kaufman is not a happy place. His stop-motion animated movie Anomalisa (directed with Duke Johnson) unfolds in the isolation chamber that is its middle-aged male protagonist’s mind, where other people register as the same person in multiple guises, the tipoff being their drearily singular male voice. (Tom Noonan plays all but two of the characters — the man and the anomalous woman, Lisa, from whom the movie takes its ingenious title.) In its way, Anomalisa is a perfect thing, the most vivid portrait of solipsism this side of Kafka, Strindberg, Camus — name your favorite alienated author. But once the surprise of seeing something so miserable depicted with such wit and poetry wears off, you’re left with a nagging ugh, as well as the feeling that this emotional/psychological syndrome isn’t nearly as universal as Kaufman thinks it is.

David Thewlis voices the protagonist, Michael Stone, a transplanted Brit who flies from his home in L.A. to Cincinnati to lecture service employees on the importance of talking to customers as if they’re friends. Your irony horn should be buzzing, because the voice Michael hears is a nightmare version of what he preaches, a peculiar mixture of mechanical and intimate that feels invasive. (Noonan isn’t quite monotonic — he’ll go up or down a semitone the way Trey Parker does with multiple sound-alike characters in South Park.) But it’s not just cabdrivers and hotel clerks and waitresses who abrade Michael’s soul. It’s his bitter ex-girlfriend, his wife, his little son. (I wonder if the filmmakers cast a Brit because of the way he says, “Bohrrrr-ring. Everything is bohrrrring.”) He thinks he’s the last man on Earth after an invasion of the voice snatchers.

The stop-motion animation is thrillingly expressive, its subtle lack of fluidity making Michael seem detached from his body, like the aging shell of a machine. Throughout we hear the sad, mechanical hum-rumble of a sad, mechanical universe, embodied by the Fregoli Hotel with its endless, dim, look-alike corridors — the name an allusion to the “Fregoli Delusion,” a rare syndrome in which some sufferers believe that everyone else is the same person in disguise.

It’s Lisa — a reflexively self-deprecating conference attendee — whose voice cuts through the hitherto impenetrable fog of Michael’s self-absorption. He tells her it’s magic, that voice, a miracle, and it is: It belongs to Jennifer Jason Leigh, who succeeds in putting her tremulous soul into every utterance. When Lisa sings Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” Leigh makes you hear the words “I want to be the one to walk in the sun” differently, the sunlight representing more than fun — joy, transcendence. The justly celebrated stop-motion sex scene is a feat of alchemy, the awkwardness and shyness and physical imperfections transmuted into an angelic communion. You want to applaud when they finish together.

The suspense in Anomalisa is in whether this sublime union can be sustained — or if those voice snatchers will take Lisa too. Michael’s terror produces some good images (the couple running as the hotel corridor dematerializes behind them is very Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) along with a grim suspicion that in Kaufman’s world, love is more delusory than the Fregoli Delusion. He might have a touch of Tim Burton Syndrome, which I’ve named after Burton’s poignant rationalization via his alter ego, Edward Scissorhands, for why he was (allegedly) prone to carving people up all the time: He couldn’t help it. It was how he was created. Anomalisa plays like the response of a man accused of being emotionally unavailable: “It’s not that I’m unavailable to you! I have a syndrome that makes you unavailable to me!” The movie finally comes to seem self-centered in an ugly way, the women scolds or — in the case of Lisa — too credulous (and dumb?) to be able to live with for long.

I’d heard that the original ending of his Eternal Sunshine was bleak and cynical, but the whole movie was leavened by director Michel Gondry — also a solipsist, but a more childlike, romantic one. I wish Anomalisa had a touch of Gondry, that its misery weren’t so complacent. One hundred c.c.’s of undiluted Charlie Kaufman makes you want a transfusion.

Directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson. Paramount. R.

*This article appears in the December 28, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.