When Charlie Kaufman digs deep into his bizarre imagination and links his fantasies with a coherent and compelling narrative, we get “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation,” or “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” all of which earned him Oscar nominations for their screenplays. (He won for the latter.)
When he doesn’t tie those two elements together, we get “Human Nature,” “Synecdoche, New York” and the current “Anomalisa,” his first film rendered in stop-motion animation. “Anomalisa,” which he wrote alone and co-directed with Duke Johnson, has also been nominated for an Academy Award, partly because the animation category isn’t strong this year – and partly because he’s Charlie Kaufman, embodiment of moviemaking cool.
He and Johnson adapted Kaufman’s play of the same name, which he wrote as Francis Fregoli. (Most of the film’s action takes place in the mythical Fregoli Hotel.) Three actors comprise the voiceover cast: David Thewlis as depressed author Michael Stone, Jennifer Jason Leigh as bubbly fan Lisa Hesselman, and Tom Noonan as everyone else.
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Stone, who now lives in Los Angeles, has come back to Cincinnati to give a talk about customer service to a crowd of businessmen. He has drifted away from his wife and son. He phones an old flame he dumped 20 years ago and gets dumped by her in turn. He meets Hesselman, who offers attention and respect he craves. She’s an anomaly in his life, the only person who seems fresh and caring. (Hence, “Anomalisa.”) Can she lift him out of his funk?
The gimmick is in the casting: Stone’s world has been populated by monotonous people who share the same voice and roughly the same face. He even dreams about being a robot himself. But what might have been a fair “Twilight Zone” episode gets dragged out unduly: The first half-hour of the movie consists of Stone landing in a plane, taking a cab ride, checking into a hotel, getting the room explained by a bellhop, showering and urinating – yes, the mundanity you’d find tedious even in your own life.
We’re never invested in Stone enough to wonder why he’s depressed. (He’s hypercritical of others, so he causes some of his own loneliness.) Unlike David Foster Wallace in “End of the Tour,” a masterful look at depression, Stone’s just a self-centered, unaware bore. He doesn’t merit attention from the kindly, cheerful, anxious Lisa – or from us.
Cast: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh.
Writer-Director: Charlie Kaufman (directing with Duke Johnson).
Length: 90 minutes.
Rating: R (strong sexual content, graphic nudity and language).