Setting aside for a moment its deep humanity, gorgeous design, delicate poignancy and melancholy sense of humor, Anomalisa is a marvelous film because it does something very rare in movies: It feels exactly right. Working with a basic storyline—a traveling motivational speaker meets a pretty, shy office worker—writer and co-director Charlie Kaufman has crafted something profoundly, simply true, wringing layers of meaning and insight from unobserved everyday occurrences.
That all of this comes in the form of a stop-motion animated film makes it even more remarkable. Whether in a film such as Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, or in the output of a specialty studio such as Laika (Coraline, ParaNorman), stop-motion’s tactile, do-it-yourself quality tends to emphasize the vulnerability of its characters while simultaneously capitalizing on the boundless creative freedom that animation can offer. But Anomalisa, which Kaufman directed alongside Duke Johnson, uses stop-motion differently: Their film incorporates animation as a way to play up the story’s ordinariness. If Anomalisa was live-action, we might glance right past the intentionally drab surface; as stop-motion, that mundanity of life is the crux of what Kaufman’s depressed main character is confronting—only gradually do we realize all of us in the audience are as well.
Anomalisa’s despondent hero is Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), an author of a successful work-productivity book that has made him a sought-after public speaker at business conferences. British but living in Los Angeles, Michael has just arrived in Cincinnati for a convention, and from the minute he has a hilariously pointless conversation with his taxi driver on the way to the hotel—which is staffed by impossibly dull, dispassionately courteous employees—we recognize that Kaufman and Johnson aren’t just satirizing the anonymity of business travel, but also mourning the soul-crushing monotony that constitutes adulthood.
Michael will deliver his well-rehearsed presentation tomorrow, but how will he fill his evening tonight? He places an unremarkable call to his wife, and then decides to have a drink with an old flame—not because he wants to hook up, per se, but because he seems to be seeking an answer about why things changed between them a decade ago. Michael doesn’t come across as a bad guy, but it’s apparent he hurt this former lover, and what we glean from the phone conversation with his wife is that his current home life isn’t so great either. Michael seems to be sleepwalking through existence, and he’s been doing it so long now that he can’t remember when it started.
Just then, he comes in contact with bashful, unconfident Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and her best pal, the more assertive, flirty Emily (Tom Noonan, who voices every character other than Michael and Lisa). Coworkers from Akron attending the conference, Lisa and Emily spend some time with him, and although most men prefer Emily, Michael is mysteriously drawn to Lisa, finding her charming and her voice captivating. Starstruck about meeting Michael, Lisa wonders if he’s trying to play some mean prank at her expense—she’s had bad luck with men—but once he gets her alone, a nervous romantic attraction begins to develop between the two of them.
For the praise that Kaufman’s body of work has received—he won an Oscar for his screenplay for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, wrote and directed Synecdoche, New York, and also wrote the screenplays for Being John Malkovich and Adaptation—the accolades risk prioritizing the cleverness of his concepts over the intricate, supple emotions underneath. Anomalisa should help recalibrate viewers’ appreciation for his talent. There is a Kaufman-esque surreal twist awaiting audiences in Anomalisa, but it’s presented in such a way that it doesn’t feel like a surprise at all: If anything, the reveal is merely a grim confirmation of the great fears eating away at Michael, who’s desperately looking for something special in a world he’s afraid has been drained of all pleasure.
The conversations between Michael and Lisa, which form the bulk of this beautiful wisp of a film—not including end credits, Anomalisa clocks in around 80 minutes—are hardly revelatory, but Kaufman contains the basic building blocks of human connection in their exchanges. Fear of rejection, the desire to be seen, the anxiety that nobody quite feels the way you do about Cyndi Lauper: By eschewing grand profundity, Anomalisa’s central themes are casually, endlessly insightful about the coded language going on in our small talk. And the animation style helps enormously, provoking us to see simple conversations for all the hidden indicators of what it means to be alive. That’s why the film’s relatively shocking sex scene is such a revelation: There’s nothing explicit about it, but the matter-of-fact depiction of one of our most basic needs is startling and moving in its plainness.
Thewlis encompasses Michael’s weary resignation, but Anomalisa’s highlight is Jennifer Jason Leigh. She is also appearing in The Hateful Eight, playing a very different character, that of a foul-mouthed, vicious killer. But here, she’s all sweet, lovable modesty as Lisa, the wallflower whose rich depths are just waiting for the right person to discover. That should be a clichéd setup for a love story, but Anomalisa softly subverts our expectations, not through outlandish twists, but because its filmmakers have thought deeply and perceptively about the inner workings of being human. Anomalisa is immensely touching, a perfectly-modulated bittersweet sigh of a film. Some movies floor you with their bold ambition—this one gently shows you the world you know with such breathtaking clarity that it’s very nearly a miracle.