Ever since his mind-bending screenwriting debut with 1999’s Being John Malkovich, Charlie Kaufman has reigned as Hollywood’s most playful storyteller. But despite his wildly ambitious premises and death-defying narrative techniques, there’s always been more to his films than just formal trickery. He’s a stuntman who understands that the stunt works only if it burrows its way into your heart as well as your head. That’s why Kaufman movies such as 2002’s Adaptation and 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind have withstood the test of time. They’re strange, yes. But strangely touching, too. Actually, I’d probably call the relationship between Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine the most powerful and honest expression of the mysteries of love I’ve seen in the past 15 years.
I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but in his latest head trip, Anomalisa (which he wrote and codirected with Duke Johnson), Kaufman has nudged his penchant for wiggy experimentation a step further. He’s not just bending the notion of romance into another Möbius-strip confection; he’s also playing with form, telling his tale through a groovy version of stop-motion animation that makes it feel like Franz Kafka’s remake of Team America: World Police…but, you know, with sympathy and soul.
British actor David Thewlis provides the voice of Michael Stone, a lonely middle-aged motivational speaker who flies to Cincinnati to rally a crowd of customer-service drones at a conference. The opening moments of the film allow the audience to gradually acclimate to its visual strangeness by focusing on the drudgeries of Michael’s trip. He suffers through a chatty taxicab ride from the airport to his hotel, he checks in to his drab room, he orders room service and calls home to let his wife and son know he’s arrived safely. He even makes a half-baked plan to meet an ex in the hotel bar that goes disastrously awry.
As routine as all of this sounds, it’s clear that there’s something odd going on here. Everyone Michael meets, whether male or female, speaks with the same affectless tone of voice (all provided by hangdog character actor Tom Noonan with dry perfection). Then he bumps into a female fan, who’s…different. Her name is Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and even though she’s the first to admit that she’s nothing special in either the personality or looks department, the fact that she sounds like no one else enchants him in a way he can’t explain. Which, actually, is as perfect a metaphor for finding your soul mate—the single person who speaks to us and us alone uniquely—as I’ve ever heard. In bed, after a round of surreal puppet sex that rivals the Kama Sutra stylings of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, he gives this one-of-a-kind woman he’s determined to spend the rest of his life with the nickname Anomalisa.
It’s obvious that Kaufman has always seen the world differently from the rest of us. And even if it takes a little time to settle into Anomalisa’s disorienting, herky-jerky groove, Kaufman ends up bewitching us with his fresh take on the oldest and most hackneyed of cinematic themes: boy meets girl…and anxiety ensues. Anomalisa is a staggeringly inventive Trojan horse of a film. It dazzles our senses with a shock of the new. And while we’re trying to process what we’re witnessing, he’s slyly and subversively getting us to grapple with life’s bigger and thornier questions—questions about love and happiness, selfishness and commitment, and most of all, whether we’re content to walk numbly through our daily lives or instead be alive to its infinitely strange and beautiful possibilities. A–