How strange “Anomalisa” seems at first. Seems, and sounds.
Its characters are stop-motion animated puppets, eerily lifelike in appearance, yet at the same time just a little robotic in their movements. As for the sounds …
With a single exception, everyone that the main character — a sad-sack motivational speaker named Michael Stone — encounters sounds exactly like everyone else.
From Charlie Kaufman, who wrote and co-directed the picture (with Duke Johnson), we expect no less.
Kaufman, the mind behind “Being John Malkovich” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” possesses an artistic sensibility unlike any other filmmaker working today. That sensibility informs every word and frame of “Anomalisa,” which received an Oscar nomination for best animated feature.
Michael, an ordinary guy who feels stifled by the humdrum reality of his daily existence, is voiced by British actor David Thewlis. Everyone else is voiced by Tom Noonan. Well, almost everyone else.
The exception is a woman named Lisa. She speaks with the voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh and therefore stands apart from the barely differentiated mass of humanity that engulfs Michael. That makes her a beacon of hope to him. In the midst of sameness, there is difference. In the midst of loneliness — and the essence of Michael’s character is the profundity of his loneliness — there is the possibility of a soul mate.
“I think you’re extraordinary,” he confides to her. When she asks why, he responds, “I don’t know yet. It’s just obvious to me that you are.” And gradually the picture casts a spell, draws you in, immerses you in a world of muted sorrow and tentative hope.
What’s going on in “Anomalisa?” Michael has his suspicions. “I think I might have psychological problems,” he confides at one point.
The clue as to what might be ailing Michael is in the name of the place where the picture is set: the Fregoli Hotel. The name comes from the Fregoli delusion, which, according to the WebMD website, is defined as a rare disorder in which a person holds a delusional belief that many different people are actually one person who changes shape or uses disguises.
The hotel is rendered with amazing fidelity, from the flat lighting in its long featureless corridors to the smallest details, such as the toilet-paper roll with the first sheet folded to a point. We’ve all stayed in such places: clean, sterile, impersonal, the metaphorical equivalent of Michael’s life.
Thewlis voices Michael with weariness and despair until the character encounters Lisa. Leigh mixes eagerness (a sales representative from Akron, she is a big fan of Michael’s best-selling book on motivational speaking) and an abashed vocal quality that emphasizes her character’s vulnerability. Lisa is rather plain and is very self-conscious about a facial scar. Ordinary, yet oddly unique. The bond between them evolves into a startlingly erotic (especially for stop-motion puppets) sexual encounter.
It’s strange — they’re puppets! — but oddly affecting. And symbolic of the essence of “Anomalisa.”
☆☆☆ 1/2 out of 5
Cast: Voices of David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan.
Director: Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson.
Running time: 1:30.
Rated: R, for strong sexual content, graphic nudity and language.