Whether you’re at the airport or stuck in traffic on the way to work or in a crowded restaurant, you’re the star of the movie of your life.
You might have a co-star in the form of your significant other, and supporting players a.k.a. your co-workers and your boss and your friends, and there’s an endless supply of extras, i.e., all those people contributing background noise and visual stimuli as you navigate every minute of your life.
The disturbingly brilliant “Anomalisa,” which springs from the mind of Charlie Kaufman (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation”), is a movie about that I’m-in-my-own-movie feeling (among many other things). And even though it is a highly stylized, stop-motion animation film featuring puppet-like human characters, it is a pinpoint-accurate encapsulation of some of the most banal AND some of the most exhilarating moments virtually all of us have experienced at some point in our lives.
David Thewlis voices Michael Stone: 40ish, seemingly clinically depressed, self-obsessed. Michael is on an overnight trip to Cincinnati to deliver a speech about his mega-selling book, How May I Help You Help Them, which has become the Bible of customer service workers across the land and has made him a celebrity within said customer service community.
The sound in “Anomalisa” is a thing of wonder. When we’re on the plane with Michael or following him through the airport or in a hotel bar, we pick up snippets of conversation and background clutter noise — and it’s as if we’re right there with Michael.
Michael’s cab ride from the airport to the hotel is a thing of deadpan beauty. Michael clearly isn’t interesting in mindless chit chat, but the cab driver picks up that Michael is British, and says he loves how English people say things like “the States” and “shrimp on the barbie.” Even after Michael repeatedly tells the cabbie he’s here just for one day on business, the cabbie insists Michael visit the Cincinnati Zoo and sample Cincinnati’s chili, which is nothing like the chilis Michael has had elsewhere.
When Michael checks into the luxurious Fregoli Hotel, he encounters the unnecessarily long check-in and settle-in ritual we’ve all experienced. The front desk clerk hunches over the keyboard, typing and typing and TYPING before confirming the reservation. The bellhop goes into ridiculous detail explaining things (“This is your bathroom”). When Michael finally figures out which button on the phone is for Room Service, the voice on the other end goes into excruciating detail about each item he orders, and then repeats the order before telling him dinner will arrive in exactly 35 minutes.
We begin to realize something. Everyone Michael talks to sounds the same. Exactly the same. In fact, the wonderful veteran character actor and filmmaker Tom Noonan gives voice to everyone Michael Stone meets in this movie, with one notable exception. Even when Michael looks up an old flame and they have a contentious encounter in the hotel bar, she sounds like everyone else in Michael’s world.
Bursting through Michael’s narcissistic wallowing is one Lisa Hesselman (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an awkward, unsophisticated, sweet and enthusiastic young woman who is slightly overweight and has a scar on her face, and is absolutely bowled over when she meets THE Michael Stone at the hotel.
Lisa and her girlfriend work in customer service, and they’ve made the four-hour drive to Cincinnati and they’ve even splurged on a room at the Fregoli, just so they can absorb the wisdom of Michael Stone.
(A word about the name of that hotel. The Fregoli Delusion is a rare condition in which an individual is convinced many people in his life are actually the same individual in disguise. In “Anomalisa,” even Michael’s wife and son have that same voice, that same Tom Noonan voice. Only Lisa breaks through his haze and actually sounds like another person.)
Lisa is naïve and sad and painfully honest about her life. She hasn’t been with anyone in eight years. She’s never stayed in a nice hotel before. She loves to sing karaoke, with “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” her go-to song. (Her a capella version of “Girls” is one of the saddest and most beautiful musical interludes in any film in recent years.)
Michael falls hard for Lisa. He’s almost euphoric! He’ll leave his wife and son, and start a new life with Lisa. Finally he can shake off the feeling of being alone.
Let’s leave things there.
If you took the script of “Anomalisa” and assigned the same fine actors to the movie, only this time setting it in the real Cincinnati and putting those actors in front of the camera, would it work as an indie slice of loneliness and alienation? Probably so. Yet somehow these sad-faced, relatively simplistic, odd little puppets seem like the perfect vehicles for this journey.
You know when critics say “You’ve never seen anything quite like this,” and it’s almost always blurb-y hyperbole?
I’m telling you: You’ve never seen anything quite like this.
Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson and written by Kaufman. Running time: 90 minutes. Rated R (for strong sexual content, graphic nudity and language). Opens Friday at Landmark Century Centre.