There's a rare psychological disorder known as “the Fregoli delusion.” It's complicated, but the short version is that it causes the person suffering from it to believe that multiple people are actually one single person who is continually changing appearance. This delusion is frequently accompanied by paranoia, as the person will become convinced that the shape-shifting mystery person is secretly out to get them. So, when I tell you that the stop-motion animated feature Anomalisa (written by Charlie Kaufman and co-directed by Kaufman and Duke Johnson) is about a man who checks into a place called The Al Fregoli Hotel for an evening and that Tom Noonan (Manhunter) voices almost all of the film's other characters, you have an idea of where the film is starting from.
Michael Stone (David Thewlis, Naked) is an inspirational speaker who is making a quick trip to Cincinnati for a speaking engagement. He checks into his hotel, orders room service, calls his wife and son to say goodnight... and then calls Bella, the woman he broke up with eleven years ago. Michael carries Bella's angry, confused farewell letter with him everywhere he goes; occasionally pulling it out to re-experience the sting it offers (“F--- you, Michael”). When he reads the letter, he imagines a tearful Bella reading it aloud to him. It's distracting and undeniably funny to hear Noonan's smooth, monotone voice attached to the character, but after hearing Noonan subsequently voice a cab driver, a hotel manager, a bellboy, a waitress and an abundance of other peripheral characters, the distraction fades. By the time Michael and Bella meet up at the hotel for an ill-fated attempt to smooth things over, we've come to accept Noonan's polite drone as the sound of Other People.
Then, Michael hears something: a new voice. After meeting dozens of Noonan-voiced characters, we suddenly hear the voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hudsucker Proxy) somewhere in the distance. The sound is music to Michael's ears, and he follows the voice until he finds the person it's attached to. Her name is Lisa, and it just so happens that she and her friend Emily are planning to attend Michael's seminar the next day. They've both read his book, and they're big fans. Michael spends a little time with both of them, and ultimately invites Lisa to come back to his room. Lisa seems confused: “Are you sure you don't mean Emily? Everyone else prefers Emily.” This is a woman with zero self-confidence, but she doesn't realize that she's triggered something profound in Michael.
Like a lot of other Kaufman protagonists, Michael isn't a particularly likable character (he's a self-pitying philanderer), but he is an uncomfortably relatable one. He has every reason in the world to be happy - he has a successful career, his wife loves him and his son loves him – but he seems unable to shake the feeling of being utterly alone in the world. When Lisa enters his life, it feels like a life-changing revelation: for the first time in ages, Michael's heart and soul are filled with joy. Unfortunately for him, Kaufman doesn't put much stock in life-changing revelations or happily ever afters. Let's take a moment to recall the protagonist of Kaufman's sad, beautiful Synecdoche, New York, constantly chasing a creative breakthrough that he never quite manages to wrap his hands around. Let's also take a moment to recall the closing moments of the Kaufman-penned Being John Malkovich, as poor, desperate Craig Schwartz is doomed to an eternity watching the person he loves share love with someone else.
Anomalisa is a more accessible film than Synecdoche (and it's Kaufman's funniest work since Adaptation – a scene of Kaufman voicing multiple characters in the vintage screwball comedy My Man Godfrey is hysterical), but when it hits, it hits hard. A lot of filmmakers wallow in hopelessness, but part of what makes much of Kaufman's work so devastating is that hope exists... it's just perpetually out of reach. Sometimes you can even touch it, but not for long. His decision to use the stop-motion format seems like a gimmick at first (there's little here that couldn't have been captured in live-action form), but eventually you realize how essential the format is to the story he's telling: Michael is a real man, but he lives in a world where nothing feels real. The film is rougher around the edges and less polished than other recent stop-motion films like Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Boxtrolls and The Lego Movie, but that, too, adds thematic resonance.
While it lasts, the warmth the film offers is remarkably potent. The connection that exists between Michael and Lisa is so strong that it almost makes you forget that Michael has a family back home (it certainly makes Michael forget). There's an unforgettable scene in which Lisa sheepishly offers a captivated Michael her a capella rendition of Cyndi Lauper's “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” followed by one of the most remarkable love scenes I've ever seen in a movie: clumsy, awkward, tender and real. The sequence plays like an effective rebuttal to Team America: World Police, which made the (not unreasonable) assumption that puppets having graphic sex is inherently hilarious. Here's, it's only funny in the way that real sex can sometimes be funny (something too few movies acknowledge). Alas, the morning after, something has changed.
This is a movie about a man with specific issues (a heartbreaking third-act scene suggests that Michael also suffers from bipolar disorder), but it also taps into the more universal feeling that the world is a profoundly lonely place. Perhaps the movie would feel like little more than an elegant pity-party if that were the extent of it, but there's something even more affecting here: the acknowledgment that our feelings of loneliness ultimately only contribute to the loneliness that other people feel. We're alone, we're together, we're alone together, we're alone. Anomalisa isn't as emotionally overwhelming or as wildly ambitious as Synecdoche, but it certainly left me with the same sudden need to feel the warmth of the sun on my face.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 90 minutes
Release Year: 2015