Motivational speaker Michael Stone (David Thewlis) checks into a Cincinnati hotel. After his business-trip rituals and a heated run-in with an ex, his half-drunk ennui increases. Enter Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Lisa.
There are 1,070 "special thanks” credits at the end of Anomalisa. Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s mini-masterpiece started life as a one-act Kaufman entry in a Carter Burwell sound-play experiment (whatever that is) and it took Kickstarter to get it to the screen. Happily, Anomalisa has made all those other Kickstarter requests bearable. It is a minor miracle of a movie, the most beautiful, haunting, empathetic, tender, funny 90 minutes of the year so far. Whether those 1,070 people donated a lot or a little, thank you.
There is puppet sex, although happily at the other end of the scale from Team America.
On paper, it doesn’t sound hopeful. This is a stop-motion character study of Michael Stone, a demotivated motivational speaker voiced by David Thewlis on a go-slow. It gets weirder. The puppets have clip-on faces (you can see the joins) with pudgy bodies (hidden by baggy clothes) and fuzzy skin. The only other actors are Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tom Noonan. The latter voices pretty much all of the characters, be it cabby, wife, dumped ex-girlfriend or bellhop. This is because Michael’s jaundiced worldview means everyone sounds very much the same as anyone else.
But out of such unpromising ingredients Kaufman and fellow director Duke Johnson (who was responsible for Community’s stop-motion Christmas episode) wring melancholy magic. After a minutely observed, dark depiction of aircraft and taxi chit-chat, bleak hotel downtime and a failed attempt to reignite relations with an old flame, there is light. Michael meets Lisa (Leigh), a groupie attending his talk, and boom! The pair forge a connection. Lisa’s lightness lifts Michael from his despair and the pair connect over their insecurities and missed opportunities. There is puppet sex — happily at the other end of the scale from the ridiculous vision in Team America — and there is singing: Lisa’s heart-breaking rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want To Have Fun will leave you in pieces.
As you’d expect from Kaufman, the writing delivers flawed, lonely people who you desperately hope will find happiness together. As Michael and Lisa’s relationship crescendos, the film enters a Being John Malkovich zone of madness. That Michael has checked into the Fregoli hotel is pertinent here: the ‘Fregoli delusion’ is a paranoid disorder where the sufferer believes different people are actually one single person out to get them but assuming multiple personalities.
You’d be right to expect that, given Kaufman’s history of surreal twists and unlikely storytelling, it isn’t likely to end well or in any sort of obvious manner (an ancient Japanese sex toy is involved). But what stays with you isn’t the puppetry or point-making about the corrosion of individuality in the modern world. Instead it’s the poignant consideration of just how fragile we all are.
Anomalisa has more heart, soul and pathos than 99.9 per cent of live-action movies. The best hotel-set love story since Lost In Translation.