'Anomalisa': Venice Review

An authentic, handmade original.

Charlie Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson deliver a unique reflection on love, pain and loneliness in this animated account of one man's long dark night of the soul pierced by light.

Whether in his screenplays for Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or his directing debut, Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman's surreal, cerebral chronicles of despair, obsession and failure are like nothing else out there. So it was a given that his first animated feature, Anomalisa, co-directed with stop-motion specialist Duke Johnson, was going to be another idiosyncratic entry in a small but wildly distinctive body of work. However, that doesn't nearly do justice to the beguiling poignancy and emotional nuance of this funny-sad, haunting meditation on depression, disguised as a melancholy love story.

Funded via Kickstarter and in production for more than two years, the material began life as an original "radio play" performed in New York and L.A. as part of composer Carter Burwell's "Theater of a New Ear" project, involving Joel and Ethan Coen as well as Kaufman. The one-act works were performed by seated actors reading from scripts, with live musical accompaniment by Burwell and sound effects created on the spot by a foley artist. Anomalisa was written by Kaufman under the pseudonym Franco Fregoli.

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A glance at the Wikipedia page for "Fregoli delusion" provides hints as to what Kaufman might be getting at — in less cryptic fashion than some of his prior works — with its description of a paranoid disorder in which the sufferer believes that different people are instead one single person out to persecute them, who assumes various appearances.

Translating a nonvisual performance piece to film might have been challenging, but no less than his collaborations with Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry, Kaufman's work with Johnson has yielded something quite unique, graced by gorgeously plaintive music from Burwell. The naive-style puppet animation has similarities to the Adult Swim series Moral Orel and Mary Shelley's Frankenhole, on which Johnson worked, as well as his stop-motion animated episode of Community (series creator Dan Harmon is an executive producer here).

But there's something more disquieting about these puppets. Their faces look like vintage marionette dolls, split into two plates, with seams cutting across the eyes and around the hair- and jawlines. And the saggy, puffy imperfections of their bodies, when we see the two key characters naked, are heartbreakingly real.

The film opens with a steadily amplified din of overlapping conversation, as Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) flies into Cincinnati for a speaking engagement. A Brit living in Los Angeles with his wife and son, he's the author of a motivational book on customer service titled How May I Help You Help Them?, and a minor celebrity in his field. His darkly funny early interactions with various people — a seatmate on his flight, a chatty cab driver, the Fregoli Hotel desk clerk and bellboy — all suggest his barely contained impatience with their invasive behavior and ingratiating small talk.

Kaufman and Johnson create a vivid, dismally relatable world here, both droll and dreary, but fascinating precisely because of its numbing banality. Even the upscale, bland modernity of the suite that Michael checks into is observed with sly humor; it's an instantly recognizable environment rendered absurd by the directors' clarity of vision. And Michael's tired routines — phone home, dial room service, practice his speech, go down the hall for ice, watch a snippet of My Man Godfrey (also animated) on TV — begin to take on a strange profundity in their bleak ordinariness.

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But antidepressants haven't entirely dulled Michael’s desire to grasp at a moment of happiness. He tries to reconnect with a local woman, Bella Amarossi, on whom he walked out 11 years earlier. She has remained single and disappointed, and the pathos of her still-bruised feelings is unexpectedly raw. It doesn't end well.

All the other characters, irrespective of gender, age or relationship to Michael, are voiced with scarcely modulated delivery by Tom Noonan. The one exception — or anomaly, if you will — is Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lisa, whose voice cuts through hotel walls and brain static to summon Michael out of his martini-dulled torpor and bring him momentarily back to life.

She's a customer service rep for an Ohio baked goods company, a dumpy, unsophisticated woman with low self-esteem, a facial burn scar and a shabby romantic history. "I play the Jew's harp a little," she offers in one typically awkward getting-to-know-you moment. "I don't like to say 'Jew's harp' because it's offensive to Jews." But during the night they spend together, drinking, talking, singing Cyndi Lauper and getting down to some graphic puppet sex, she acquires almost magical qualities, causing Michael to believe she's the only other real person in a world where everyone else is just one nightmarish person who wants a piece of him. That fear is illustrated in a priceless dream sequence.

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Clearly, anyone familiar with Kaufman's work will know that the idyll with Lisa was never going to last, and the spectacular public meltdown that seals its conclusion is weirdly shattering. But as a single-night romantic interlude enriched by infinitely detailed context, it's a superb set-piece. And like Scarlett Johansson's remarkable voice work in Her, Anomalisa provides Thewlis and Leigh with two of the very best roles of their careers.

It wouldn't be Kaufman if all the pieces made perfect sense, and an antique Japanese mechanized doll that Michael purchases for his son at an erotica emporium (he was directed to a "toy store") is an amusing head-scratcher. But this is a wonderfully odd consideration of those questions about love, pain, solitude and human connection we all ask; its emotional power creeps out from under the subtle humor and leaves a subcutaneous imprint that lingers long after the movie is over. It needs an adventurous distributor to help it extend the Kaufman cult and find the adoring audience it richly deserves.

Production companies: Snoot Entertainment
Cast: Jennifer Jason Leigh, David Thewlis, Tom Noonan
Directors: Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson
Screenwriter: Charlie Kaufman, based on the play
Producers: Rosa Tran, Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman, Dino Stamatopoulos
Executive producers: James A. Fino, Dan Harmon, Joe Russo II, Keith Calder, Jessica Calder, Aaron Mitchell, Kassandra Mitchell, Pandora Edmiston, David Fuchs, Simon Ore, David Rheingold, Adrian Versteegh
Director of photography: Joe Passarelli
Production designers: John Joyce, Huy Vu
Costume designer: Susan Donym
Music: Carter Burwell
Editor: Garret Elkins
Visual effects supervisor: Derek Smith
Animation supervisor: Dan Driscoll
Sales: HanWay Films

Rated R, 90 minutes