In the opening scenes of Anomalisa, Michael Stone looks wistfully out the window of an airplane. It’s nighttime and raining and he is utterly alone. He pulls a letter out of his pocket, authored by a scorned woman from ten years past, and from this we learn that Michael is a man filled with longing and regret. Wherever he’s going, it doesn’t appear worth looking forward to.
Anomalisa is the second film directed by the legendary screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (alongside first-time collaborator Duke Johnson). It’s been seven years since Synecdoche, New York, a goddamn masterpiece of a film about a playwright whose work and real life become intertwined, until everyone withers away and dies. There’s something a little off in every Kaufman universe that you can’t always put your finger on. In the case of Anomalisa, you may notice that nothing is real and the people are stop motion puppets, but it’s not as conspicuous as you might think, because everything these puppets do and say is hopelessly, inescapably human.
We follow Michael Stone through the airport and into a cab, and then to the Fregoli Hotel in Cincinnati, Ohio. We overhear people in the lobby whispering his name, but again, this is a Kaufman film, so we can’t really trust where those whispers are coming from or what they mean. David Thewlis voices Michael with the vague, cockney accent of a man who’s been living in the states for a while, and has been made very tired by it. Thewlis is an above-average actor who hasn’t quite caught on in America. He’s probably most recognizable as the man with the high-pitched laugh at Maude’s house in The Big Lebowski. In Anomalisa, he sounds like a man on the brink of losing his patience, but with just enough self-awareness to know that it’s not the world’s fault: It’s him.
There’s an important clue to be found in the name of the hotel, which refers to a rare delusion wherein the sufferer believes that everyone else in the world is the same person in disguise. How bored would you feel if that were true, if there were no difference between your wife, your son, the ex-girlfriend you left without explanation, and the bellhop? Say you’d been living that way for years, and suddenly a customer sales representative showed up, out of nowhere, and she was the only one in the entire world who was different.
Such is the case with Lisa, played with tender enthusiasm by Jennifer Jason Leigh. “I think you’re extraordinary,” Michael says. She wonders why. “I don’t know yet,” he answers. “It’s just obvious to me that you are.”
Anomalisa is a gorgeous film with tremendous feeling, unlike anything that’s come before it. I saw an advanced screening in a theater just outside of Detroit with Kaufman and Johnson in attendance. I got there late and had to sit in the front row, which fortuitously put me face-to-face with one of my all-time favorite artists. I think Johnson could sense my enthusiasm; he let me ask a question, and I’d relay the answer here, except I couldn’t hear anything over the sound of my own pounding heart. Mostly, I just gushed: “Thank you so much for your movies,” I said. That profound feeling of loss and alienation they convey, mixed with absurdity and humor, the idea that nothing ever gets better but life is somehow worth living anyway—I don’t know who I’d be without them.
Kaufman held the microphone up to his mouth and said, “Thanks.” And then I keeled over and died happy. I’m writing to you from there.
Anomalisa is playing now at the Landmark Guild’s 45th Theater (2115 N 45th St.).