While on a business trip, Michael meets Lisa. He’s a motivational speaker and author of customer-service training books; she’s coincidentally a service rep herself, in town for the professional conference at which Michael is speaking. They hit it off over drinks at the hotel, one thing leads to another, and suddenly their casual chance meeting takes an unexpected turn.
Before we completely sink into Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman’s torpidly unsettling Anomalisa, the very first thing we notice is that Michael, Lisa, and all the rest of the characters are animated, in a distinctive stop-motion style. Their most remarkable physical features, aside from herky-jerky movements, are the clearly visible joints between the panels in their faces and bodies.
Other stop-motion animated characters, in such films as Frankenweenie or Fantastic Mr. Fox, were created to look sui generis. Michael (voiced by David Thewlis) and Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), on the other hand, have been designed as deliberately robotic-looking beings — at one point, Michael even tries to unhinge one of his face panels. This exaggerated artificiality forces us to focus more closely on the “personality” of the characters and their ultra-banal dialogue, delivered with a snappish, David-Mamet-like rhythm. The things they say and do are just as off-putting as their appearance. Anomalisa may be animated, but it’s decidedly not for kids.
Middle-aged, paunchy, exhausted Michael, sitting alone in his sterile hotel room, is revealed to be a very lonely man, with strained family relations including an ex-wife. His attempts to do the right thing, as in the adult “toy” store scene, are hampered by his glum ill humor. In fact, he seems a likely candidate for suicide. By comparison, Lisa comes across as wounded but cheerful, an ordinary middle-class office worker, a bit self-conscious about the scar on her face but willing to play along with this older man, ostentatiously dragging his disconnectedness behind him.
Kaufman, the writer of Synecdoche, New York and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, clearly relishes exploring the emptiness of modern life through characters like Michael and Lisa. The film is adapted from his audio-only “sound play” (written under the name Francis Fregoli), which was produced as an experiment with composer Carter Burwell, who does the music score for the film. The only actors are Thewlis, Jason Leigh, and Tom Noonan, who plays all the other figures in Michael and Lisa’s world.
We’re happy (is that the right word?) to go along with the psychodrama, up to a point. By the time we reach the “dream sequence” the air goes out of Kaufman’s allegorical balloon, as it did in Synecdoche and Sunshine, and we’ve had enough. “What is it to be alive?” Michael plaintively asks in front of an audience of uncomprehending, anonymous corporate underlings. Indeed. Anomalisa is a genuine thumb-sucker. Kaufman and animation pro Johnson dress the two lonely hearts’ relationship in some fairly interesting clothes, but they’re so bloodless — literally and figuratively — that sitting through this is like chewing cardboard and then congratulating ourselves on our ability to suffer. Kaufman’s dramas give introspection a bad name. We’d almost be better off listening to this in its original radio-play form, so as not to be distracted by the cartoon archetypes and their sad dance. “We need to stay together forever,” intones Michael. No, just for ninety minutes, and then we’re free.