Stop-motion film Anomalisa reminds us that perfection is an illusion

Charlie Kaufman may be the most original voice in US cinema since David Lynch, and this latest film has a unique tactile tension.

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No one would start a punch-up if they said that the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is the most original voice to emerge in US cinema since David Lynch. And voice itself is central to Anomalisa, his second big-screen outing as a director (after Synecdoche, New York) and his first in stop-motion animation. The actor Tom Noonan lends his tones, which are soft and smooth yet not in the least bit reassuring, to almost every voice here, from the passengers on a plane to the cabby on the ride from the airport and the lattice of chit-chat in a hotel bar. Only two people do not speak with his anaesthetised vocal cords. Michael Stone, a businessman staying at a dismal, mid-range Cincinnati hotel, has the adenoidal twang of the Lancastrian actor David Thewlis, who breathes a sigh of resignation or resentment into every line. And the voice of Lisa, a fellow guest, is provided by Jennifer Jason Leigh, a master at evoking perkiness bruised by experience.

The central irony of Anomalisa is that Michael, the author of a bestselling business manual about treating customers as individuals, cannot heed his own advice. Whether it is his wife and son, or an ex-lover whose passion he tries forlornly to rekindle, or the doleful figures who demand his affection in a nightmare, he hears and sees everyone around him as a single, indistinct mass. As do we. Meeting Lisa is an eye-opener – or rather, an ear-opener. For the first time, he has found someone who speaks, literally, in a different voice. (The film takes its title from the pet name he gives her in honour of that unique quality.) Emboldened by the rush and excitement of attraction, he begins mentally reshaping his future.

It’s no surprise that reality refuses to correspond to Michael’s fantasies. Anomalisa is one of those films, like The Heartbreak Kid by Elaine May, which show the idea of romantic perfection to be fatal to any chance of love or happiness. Projecting all his hopes on to Lisa, Michael cannot help but be disappointed. The film functions wonderfully as a corrective to the namby-pamby idealism of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, which also concerns two strangers who meet and bond with one another in a hotel far from home. That movie was built on the timeless and fraudulent notion that somewhere there exists one person who truly understands us. Anomalisa thumbs its nose at such poppycock.

Michael and Lisa share a brief connection. She admires and flatters him. He picks up on her insecurities about her appearance and assuages them (she has a burn on her face which he asks to kiss). They have brief, awkward sex – nice, normal puppet sex, that is, not the nasty sort we saw in Team America: World Police. Lisa sings a slow, mournful, a cappella version of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” which transforms that upbeat anthem into a lament for the oppressed. Gradually the sheen of their attraction starts to fade.

In films such as Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which featured madcap chases through his characters’ subconscious, Kaufman created a new psychological landscape for cinema that had all the malleability of Looney Tunes while being anything but cartoonish in nature. Anomalisa is set in a more recognisable world: the pervasive, low-level creepiness is almost comforting in its suggestion of Lynch or Polanski. And Kaufman is hardly the first film-maker to have realised that hotel life has a particular soulless horror all its own. The aspects that he chooses to emphasise (the bland hotel magazine, the bewildering range of room-service options, the staff whose conviviality is so exaggerated that it becomes menacing) feel like sketches for a stand-up routine, rather than fully fledged material.

What makes the film distinctive is the cast of clay figures, each of them achingly human in every detail except for the line that runs across their temple and along the jaw. This slight segmentation makes it appear, in profile, as though the characters are wearing poorly concealed masks – they could be crash-test dummies disguised as people – which is altogether fitting for a movies riddled with anxieties about anonymity and insincerity.

The natural restlessness of stop motion also lends the images a tactile tension. The animators can ensure well enough that the movement of faces and bodies is smooth, but nothing can be done about the fabrics and fibres that bristle disobediently from frame to frame. They remind us that any calm on the surface is only ever an illusion.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 10 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Psycho