For all their weirdness and unpredictability, Charlie Kaufman's films tend to share two traits: an imaginative inspection of what's actually happening beneath the surface of what we perceive to be reality, and a central male figure whose eyes are opened by a striking, albeit quirky, woman. Manic Pixie Dream Girl is the label applied to lesser versions of similar female characters, who serve little additional purpose than to guide a man through his journey. The women in Kaufman's films are richer and more complex, but their purpose remains the same. At this week's Fantastic Fest, Kaufman's latest film, Anomalisa, stuck to the Oscar winning screenwriter's recipe. Does the world need another film about a depressed middle aged man and the fleeting joy provided by a woman with a streak of dyed hair? And does it help if they're played by puppets?
The follow-up to Kaufman's ambitious Synecdoche, New York — a film about a play that gradually blurs the line between its own fiction and reality — Anomalisa is comparably small and grounded. Set almost entirely in the suffocating confines of the most boring place in the world — an Ohio convention center hotel — the story tracks a short work trip of business leadership author and guru Michael Stone (David Thewlis). Stone has it all, and he is profoundly unhappy.
Like the hotel, Michael's life appears formally nice and put together, when truthfully, it is dull to the point of madness. Starburns Industries, the animation studio that produced Anomalisa, director Duke Johnson, and Kaufman pin the soul of their film to the idea of a Great Existential Bleh. Every character but Michael and Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is voiced by one actor: Tom Noonan. Every man, woman, and child gets the same flat, needy drone, and it's Lisa's unusual voice, heard in the hallway, that jolts Michael to action.
Stone has it all, and he is profoundly unhappy
The trouble with making a movie about the tedium of life is the movie can be tedious itself. Michael's dalliance away from his boring wife and boring son and boring home in Los Angeles is rarely as interesting as the artistry of their handmade faces, the warmly lit hotel room, or the bar crowded with puppet people. Michael is the sort of unlikable and unrelatable hero I would have admired as a tweenager who bought Criterion Collection DVDs but never bothered to watch them. But as an adult, the spoiled selfish man of Anomalisa is lost amongst the hundreds of other spoiled, selfish men of film, TV, and literature that want to capture what was fresh about Updike's decades old Rabbit series. Like the film's supporting cast, the voice of Michael Stone sounds like a voice I hear all the time, everywhere.
If anything, I wonder if Anomalisa is even more deeply cynical than Kaufman's inspirations and his own previous work. The most mundane conversations in the film happen between Michael and Lisa, and I'm left wondering if the point is that even the brief joys of life are actually mindless filler dressed as something more. The film also has a strange, unsettling analogy of women as short term escapes: the dramatic symbol of the movie being an automata of a nude geisha's top half that Michael purchases and doesn't have a clue what to do with.
Anomalisa is as fantastic as it is fatalistic
The animation, however, bubbles over with life. Starburns Industries is best known for animating the 2D Rick and Morty, the stop-motion Moral Orel, and the Christmas special episode of Community — the television show and the animation studio share Executive Producer Dan Harmon. Anomalisa, funded in part by a successful Kickstarter, is its first feature film, and is the team's most beautiful creation. Where its television shows are playfully old-fashioned and messy, like used toys, the world of Anomalisa is eerily realistic, from the flavorless hotel magazines to the detailed sexual organs of its lead characters, who — despite not being real — perform one of the most believable and intimate sex scenes I've ever seen.
As a story though, Anomalisa is a remix of Charlie Kaufman's previous films, Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: the never ending hallways, and mysterious middle management office spaces; a male lead who has it all, but is crippled by a fear that happiness is impermanent; and a just-quirky-enough woman who exists to remind this man how it feels to really be alive. We've seen parts of Anomalisa in Kaufman's earlier films, and often to greater effect. Anomalisa somehow manages to feel both human and alien; it's characters talk, and walk, and scream, and have sex like people, but the theme of loneliness is so bleak and cold, that Michael Stone might as well be the only person living in the darkest cave of some far off planet. In this universe, happiness is a hotel room, a place we can visit, but it will never be home. Anomalisa is as fantastic as it is fatalistic. I can relate, and I cannot relate at all.
And so Anomalisa is a stunning, sincere, affecting movie that you have almost certainly seen before — just not like this.
Anomalisa was screened in Austin, Texas at this year's Fantastic Fest, the largest genre film festival in the US. The film is scheduled for limited release in the US on December 30th.