Charlie Kaufman’s exquisitely sad, strange, and achingly humane film, written by Kaufman but co-directed with Duke Johnson, isn’t quite like anything you’ve ever seen before.
Sure, there have been scads of films about one-night stands, midlife crises, and despair, and there have even been some 15-certificate-and-up animated films for grown-ups (from Fritz the Cat to Team America: World Police), and even a few about rare brain disorders. But there's never been one that combines all of the above in a single, tidy, often very funny package.
Michael Stone (voiced with hangdog warmth by David Thewlis) is an Englishman who’s been living in America for years. He arrives in Cincinnati to give a talk at a conference on customer service and checks into the Fregoli Hotel downtown. (The name is a little in-joke in itself: Fregoli syndrome is a rare disorder where the sufferer believes everyone in the world is the same person wearing various disguises.)
In the film’s odd, uncanny puppet world, all the characters apart from Michael look like they were fabricated from the same mould, with the same little eyes and sharp-chinned jaws, while each person speaks with the same voice (that of Tom Noonan), be they a man, woman or child.
After a distracted call home to his wife and child in Los Angeles, and an ill-fated attempt to hook up with an ex-lover still seething over their break-up, Michael is about to turn in for the night when he hears a voice in the corridor. It belongs to Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a young Ohio woman who's there to hear Michael at the conference tomorrow, and she sounds like no other. Moreover, she doesn’t quite look like everyone else in the world, although Lisa doesn’t think of herself as especially different except for the fact that she feels ashamed of a facial scar that she hides with a drape of hair. But to Michael, a man bored with the sameness surrounding him, Lisa is a transcendent, beautiful anomaly – hence the punning title.
After a clumsy, sweet courtship over drinks in the hotel bar, the two end up in Michael’s room for the most tenderly filmed puppet sex scene of all time, even if it may be the only tenderly filmed puppet sex scene of all time.
Like Kaufman’s previous work – his screenplays for Being John Malkovich, Adaptation. and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and especially his directorial debut Synecdoche, New York – Anomalisa is a gloriously meta game, all about levels of reality and perception. It's playfully done, with people you might recognise (puppets or not) walking around recognisable settings, right down to the kind of tastefully boring paintings you find in hotels. It deploys a surrealist, fantastical or science-fiction device but then plays everything else out dead straight, that ripple or kink in the fabric of a fictional reality revealing a deeper weirdness in the world we normally take for granted.
There’s no trite, easily extractable take-home message here, but somehow the film says something very profound about, maybe, the homogenisation of contemporary life or the repetitiveness of relationships, our need for our loved ones to be unique and special – indeed, our need to believe we are ourselves unique and special.
Kaufman’s film offers little to assuage that need here, but even so there are moments of grace, warmth and beauty that act as balm for lonely souls, like Lisa’s a cappella rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, which starts off as funny and gradually proves genuinely moving and then, when she reprises the song in Italian, becomes funny once again. It’s that subtle tonal shift that makes the film so delightful and so distinctively Kaufman-esque. In a world where so many movies look virtually the same as each other, his really are unique, sui generis, beautiful anomalies.
Anomalisa is released in cinemas on Friday 11 March