There is a moment in “Anomalisa”, Charlie Kaufman’s latest ode to the existential crisis, in which the film’s main character, author Michael Stone (David Thewlis), goes to the loo. This is notable because the film is Kaufman’s first foray into stop motion animation, a production technique that typically yields a heightened perspective, and instead Kaufman and his co-director Duke Johnson have gone the opposite route by employing its stop motion animation to explicitly capture the mundane, like that aforementioned trip to the loo, or ordering room service or relentlessly facile chit-chat between Michel and a cab driver about whether or not it is more important when visiting Cincinnati to see the zoo or eat the chili. And it works to exemplary effect. There is something genuinely affecting about watching a pair of puppets amble down a hotel hallway, their motions exaggerated, that truly impresses upon you the drudgery of the moment-to-moment, of the day-in, day-out, of the motor skills we never even stop to consider. It allows for an extraordinary verisimilitude of, shall we say, the not-so-grand banality of life.
Michael is in customer service, which seems especially apropos given that a theoretically human-centric industry has, over the years, become increasingly automated. It is also given to uniformity, don’t-change-a-word scripts and conscripted cheeriness, the idea that you don’t know if you’re talking to someone in Sacramento or Akron or Jeanu. It’s impersonal even if they ask personal questions to confirm your identity which is essentially existentialism run amok in a corporate setting, and it’s an idea that Kaufman and Johnson nicely underscore by essentially giving every person in “Anomalisa”, aside from its principal duo, the same voice. The same voice – as in, every supporting character is voiced by actor Tom Noonan, just with slight variations.
It is effectively disorienting, and becomes all the more crucial when a single voice stands out from the all Noonan-ish homogeny. That voice belongs to Lisa, given life by Jennifer Jason Leigh, and when Michael hears it, he goes searching for it, desperately, and finds her in a hotel room down the hall, in town, as it happens, with a work colleague to hear Michael speak. He takes them out for drinks and then takes Lisa back to his room. And while he is very much an unsympathetic character, self-involved and cheating on his wife back home, his encounter with her unearths an anomalous tenderness stretching beyond the impersonal, rendered in their love scene which is as personal and warm as it gets.
Another movie might have made Lisa a spark or a savior, a symbol of Michael’s impetus to change his ways. “Anomalisa”, however, as the title so niftily implies, has no interest in making her character so simple. She’s allowed to enter the film fully-formed, so susceptible to Michael’s sudden stint of goodwill because she chooses to believe the best in people if not necessarily within herself, an idea embodied in Leigh’s vocal inflections, which alternate from an earnest cheerfulness to a meek disbelief. There is a bravura sequence in which she Lisa sings Cyndi Lauper’s party anthem “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” acapella, which sets it apart from the original’s anthemic joy. Yet even though it’s infused with melancholy, she makes you believe that she still believes in a buoyant outlook on life. You realize it’s a level of awareness that Michael will never reach.