There’s a certain type of Sundance film that’s been done over and over and over again. The formula is that there’s some lonely, alienated white person who is a selfish asshole until they meet somebody who can show them the way out of their own personal hell. This summer, there were two separate versions of this formula: Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl showed this alienated person as a teenage boy, Manglehorn showed them as an old man. Each are trapped by their own selfishness into engaging in asshole behavior depicted as cute or hilarious to the audience, but is actually quite hellish to everybody around them until they hurt somebody they like. This formula is so common that The Big Bang Theory uses it on a regular basis with Sheldon as an oblivious asshole who needs to be redeemed by Penny or Amy.
Writer-director Charlie Kaufman co-opts this formula for Anomalisa, a movie about an alienated selfish adult who hurts anybody who gets close to him. Michael Stone (David Thewlis) is a customer service self-help guru on a business trip to Cincinnati to deliver a speech at a conference. Michael is oblivious to the world around him, as announced by an angry break-up letter he’s obsessing over on the flight. While in town, he meets with that angry ex-girlfriend, not to apologize or even reconcile, but because he’s lonely and craves a human connection (read: sex). It’s when Michael meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a scarred, timid, insecure woman attending the conference to hear him speak, that he finds his connection.
Excepting two segments of trademark-Kaufman surreality, Anomalisa is a small intimate movie spanning 24 hours in the life of Michael Stone. Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson tell the story using felt puppets with intimate sets and a focus on the puppet’s faces. Every puppet is divided into three parts: the body, and then the upper and lower face panels divided at the eyes, pointedly dividing actions, thoughts, and words into three distinct behaviors. Stone and Lisa have distinct face panels and voices, but all of the other characters – from his son to the bartender – are given the same face and voiced by Tom Noonan, further illustrating Lisa as an anomaly in a sea of familiar faces.
The fuzzy romantic nature of the puppets, the detail in their faces, and Joe Passarelli’s cinematography give Anomalisa a weighty feel of foreign intimacy, recalling the fuzzy solitude of Lost in Translation. Using puppets to express drunken courtship and sex could have been a fool’s errand, but the fumbling and the posturing are all too real. Because the characters on screen have a softer look, the puppets evoke a feeling of childlike empathy on top of the frustration they fully deserve.
If it weren’t for Kaufman flipping the third act of the formula onto its head, Anomalisa could have been an insufferable film. Kaufman’s smart enough to know that this formula is full of bullshit. Though Kaufman tries to give Lisa some redemption and development, she’s still a victim of the formula’s underdevelopment of anybody who isn’t the central male. Whether live action or stop-motion animation, depicting a central female as little more than a cipher is still a painful limitation. Anomalisa is an impeccably crafted film, gorgeous and effective despite having a reductive formula.