Anomalisa: I Wanna Be the One to Walk in the Sun, by David Bax
Charlie Kaufman may be known for his high-concept screenplays but what gets lost in that reputation is that, in many cases, the ideas that drives those outlandish conceits are actually pretty straightforward and simple. Wouldn’t it be nice to be someone else for a while? Wouldn’t it be helpful to get rid of the painful memories of your ex? Synecdoche, New York, a film I will freely admit that I still don’t fully get, is the main exception because the convoluted folding back in on itself is the whole point. His newest film, the stop-motion Anomalisa, which he co-directed with Duke Johnson, continues his main tradition. It’s a meticulously observed and occasionally profound film that, in the end, is not much more complex in its theme than in its premise.
David Thewlis voices Michael, an author and motivational speaker on a business trip to Cincinnati. Everyone else Michael encounters has the same basic face and, more importantly, the same voice (Tom Noonan). That is, until he overhears a woman speaking with a voice he’s never heard before. This is Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a phone sales rep staying in the same hotel as Michael with plans to attend his conference over the weekend. Michael’s heart soars. The man who, earlier, couldn’t even process a joke over the phone from his own wife without getting grumpy and defensive, suddenly finds himself full of wonder and excitement.
In order to pull this off it is imperative that the character design and animation be almost microscopically believable and nuanced enough to convey all the major and minor similarities among characters. Johnson, a stop-motion veteran (Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole, Community, Moral Orel) is more than up to the task. There’s a tactility to Anomalisa that outshines most live-action films. The rainy, autumnal, Midwestern night during which most of the action takes place is so immediate that you’ll be prepared to tuck your head down and pull your jacket closed across your chest as you leave the theater, even if it’s a Southern Californian afternoon. The animation, just like the best acting, succeeds most crucially in the moments when people aren’t talking. Nervous shifting of weight, a slightly inebriated stumble and a hushed and beautifully realistic sex scene; these are the times when Anomalisa is most alive.
Of course, Kaufman is still a gifted and cockeyed master of language and his cast warmly embraces the heartfelt and mildly absurd dialogue. Thewlis pulls from some of the same verbose, misanthropic wells as he did in Mike Leigh’s Naked. And Leigh is heartbreakingly sweet as a woman who has found a comfortable role in her life and has long resisted dwelling on the dreams she may never achieve. By sheer multitude of effort, though, Noonan is the biggest star. He achieves hilarious banality in characters like the cab driver listing Cincinnati’s tourist attractions or the waitress who remembers Michael from his earlier visits to the bar but doesn’t presume to anticipate his drink order. But Noonan also finds touching specificity buried in his characters’ sameness, like Michael’s still stung ex-girlfriend or the hotel manager, a patently Kaufmanesque creation whose particulars are best left unspoiled.
Kaufman’s aching oddball methods are in full effect here. There are fantastical moments like the basement office so large that a golf cart is provided to get you from the door to the desk. And there are also scenes that cut the silliness with shrewd insight (or perhaps the other way around) like Michael and his wife having a heart to heart while an antique Japanese sex toy whirs on the floor between them.
The experience of watching Anomalisa is, as Kaufman intended, a singular one. It’s never less than enveloping, charming, hilarious or touching. You won’t regret the 90 minutes but you may be left with the sinking feeling that, for all of the film’s uniqueness in form and content, you’ve only seen another story about a suburban dad undergoing a midlife crisis.