What is so striking about Charlie Kaufman’s amazing “Anomalisa” is not that it feels so alien, it’s that it feels so familiar.
It is a story the type of which many feel we do not need more: A white, male, middle-class, middle-aged man checks into a hotel for a business conference and has something resembling a mid-life crisis, complete with drunkenness, infidelity and poor judgement about gifts for his son.
It is a story the type of which we expect from Kaufman, the writer behind such mind-benders as “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”
There are investigations into the nature of identity and consciousness, simulacra (well, that’s a big one; see below), Jungian dream sequences, a fear of death and moments of pacing in which the master’s line is visible, sharply and distinctly.
And then there’s the fact that “Anamolisa” is entirely stop-motion animated by co-director Duke Johnson (“Moral Orel”). At first, it’s baffling — the puppets, with their face-joints intact, are jarring. Then, like so much about Kaufman, once you buy in, its slyness reveals itself.
It’s 2005. Sales and marketing expect Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), author of the book “How May I Help You to Help Them?” heads to Cincinnati to give a talk to a sales conference. He checks into the Al Fregoli hotel (an in-joke that is worth saving until after you see the movie). He holds a letter from Bella, an old flame, a woman he dumped a decade ago. We hear her voice in his head….
And suddenly you realize that all the other characters have the same voice — male, female, adult or child – and they are all voiced with a total lack of affect by Tom Noonan.
Which — for fans of his work in “Manhunter,” the extremely tense “What Happened Was…” and his part as the priest on “Louie” — is amazingly creepy.
Frankly, this is also a pretty spot-on allegory for depression — to Stone, in the throes of an existential crisis, everyone is one big drone. Even his meeting with Bella (also Noonan) goes poorly (Bella has a little too much self-respect to fall for his self-pity crap a decade after he split on her).
But then he accidentally meets two ladies here for the conference, the blonde, flirtatious Emily and the shy, mousey, Lisa. Even with her limited education and facial scar, Michael is entranced: Lisa’s voice (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is distinct.
Make no mistake: Michael, married with a kid, is not a good guy — Lisa is single, vulnerable, lonely and genuinely surprised he chooses her over Emily to come back to his room.
But Kaufman rides the line between cringe-worthy and beautiful as well as any director alive. One isn’t sure whether to burst out crying or squirm in one’s seat when a slightly drunk Lisa starts to quietly sing “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” in Michael’s room — either way, it’s a riveting moment. And I am no closer to figuring out if Kaufman is condescending to his characters or feels genuinely tenderly towards them than I am in any of his other films (which reminds me, it’s time for a reviewing of Kaufman’s stunning “Synecdoche, New York”).
Either way, “Anomalisa” is an exceptional work — haunting and, yes, real.
“Anomalisa” screens again 2:15 p.m. Tuesday.