It has been seven long years since Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut (Synecdoche, New York) premiered to a lukewarm and confused reception, ultimately sending the Oscar-winning screenwriter into a lengthy retreat within the Hollywood underground. For years I was fervently curious about what this master storyteller was up to, and I finally have my answer in Anomalisa, Kaufman’s current Oscar nominee for Best Animated Film.
The once and future king of imaginative expression of idiosyncrasy isn’t shy in relating why it has been so long since his last film project. In an interview with The Guardian’s Jonathan Romney, the Anomalisa filmmaker freely admits that it has been a struggle for him to get projects made, citing the 2008 economic collapse and mainstream studios’ insistence on producing films based on intellectual properties (comic books, young adult novels, video games) over the singularly imaginative, but offbeat, ideas that made Kaufman a bona fide rockstar.
Despite his struggles, Mr. Kaufman has managed to entertain audiences with yet another film, a stop-motion animated narrative that chronicles one night in the life of two disparate individuals, Michael and Lisa (voiced by David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh). Michael is a successful author convinced that “everything is boring” who has come to an upscale Cincinnati hotel to give a seminar about customer service and business productivity. Lisa is an ardent admirer of Michael who has travelled four hours to The Queen City in order to hear her literary idol publicly lecture.
Does this quiet, low concept story sound like a typical Charlie Kaufman plot to you? I didn’t think so. But trust me: The brain behind Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind still has what it takes to provide viewers with a healthy dose of quirkiness and peculiarity.
For starters, we know that David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh voice our two main characters. However, what this writer hasn’t yet divulged is that all of the other secondary characters (and there are dozens of them) are voiced by Kaufman favorite Tom Noonan. Yes, you heard me correctly: Noonan’s rather monotone voice portrays both men and women alike. Using this narrative device, we are able to empathize with Michael’s belief that all humans sound alike, look alike, and harbor the same mundane beliefs and world views.
However, Michael is shaken from his apathetic lull when – after 30 minutes of quiet desperation – we finally hear the unmistakable female voice of Lisa. Her gender-specific verbal frequency is a revelation to our isolated protagonist. Michael suddenly pricks up his ears and transforms into a man of overwhelming curiosity. What is that noise? What is that sound? He’s never heard anything like it, and suddenly Michael’s defeatist life has been granted a reprieve. He must meet this woman, this sound, this song. And of course, he does just that.
I wouldn’t dare spoil the ending for our wonderful readers, but suffice it to say, it is in the third and final act that Kaufman’s iconic sensibility rears its wonderfully perverse head. While upping the stakes with a fast-paced barrage of surrealist inspiration, Mr. Kaufman is able to insert such serious secondary themes as conforming to gender roles and the male aversion to assertive women, no matter how quickly our characters gloss over them.
In addition to subliminal social justice issues, Anomalisa includes the writer’s familiar theme of characters struggling to reach their true potential and undergo the goal of self-actualization. Lisa is an underpaid, low-level employee who has never gone beyond the title of Team Leader. Michael is successful, but his frustration behind his ignorance of what motivates his alienating behavior depletes his zest for life. This expression of utter dissatisfaction with one’s life situation can also be clearly seen in John Cusack’s unsuccessful puppeteer, Nicolas Cage’s impotent screenwriter, and Jim Carrey’s grieving lover stuck in the past.
Charlie Kaufman’s touch is unmistakable in Anomalisa. The specificity of everyday life has perpetually been fixed upon his gaze. And for his unrelenting examination, he is a true artist of cinema.
Here are the facts: 1) Charlie Kaufman is a master storyteller. He has won an Oscar for screenwriting, and he’s now been nominated on three separate occasions. 2) It took over two years to painstakingly craft this stop-motion endeavor. 3) Anomalisa is nominated this year for Best Animated Film. If you can appreciate the gravity of any of the three statements above, then I strongly urge you to go out and witness Anomalisa for yourself.
Anomalisa opens this Friday, January 22. It is showing exclusively at the Santikos Bijou theater.