Movies

Movie Review

People are strange in ‘Anomalisa’

David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh give voice to the characters Michael Stone and Lisa Hesselman.
Paramount Pictures via AP
David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh give voice to the characters Michael Stone and Lisa Hesselman.

The best film of 2015 is also the strangest.

Co-directed and written by Charlie Kaufman, “Anomalisa” is animated in a hyper-realistic, oddly off, stop-motion style that produces an uncanny effect similar to that in Richard Linklater’s rotoscoped “Waking Life” (2001). The characters are doll-like figures that resemble those in the puppet-show production of “Abelard & Heloise” in the Kaufman-scripted, Spike Jonze-directed “Being John Malkovich” (1999). The details combine the exactingly banal with the utterly alien and warn of imminent madness.

But that’s not why “Anomalisa” is so strange. It takes a few minutes to catch on, and it would be indiscrete to specify what it is, but once you figure out what’s really strange about it you have entered the solipsistic prison of a tormented mind.

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At first glance Michael Stone (David Thewlis) does not appear to be all that troubled. He is the famous, successful author of “How May I Help You Help Them?,” a best-selling, pop-psychological guide to improving customer relations. On the plane from LA to Cincinnati, where he will address a convention of service industry people, he displays only the irritability of someone who’s traveled too much and met too many people.

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But when he reads a letter from an ex-lover whom he dumped abruptly and without explanation, his façade starts cracking.

On one level Stone’s unhappiness could be seen as just another instance of clichéd disillusionment with success or boredom with a happy family (Stone phones his wife and son and he has good reason to be bored, if not terrified). Also, as with Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York” (2008) — in which he has morbid fun with the bizarre Capgras syndrome — a clinical diagnosis could account for Stone’s unhappiness. (A clue is the name of the hotel where Stone is staying, which is also Kaufman’s pen name for the 2005 play from which the film is adapted.)

But putting a label on the nightmare doesn’t diminish it. Nor does it diminish the film’s many acute moments of humanity and beauty. By chance, Stone meets “someone else,” the self-deprecating, somewhat frumpy Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a sales rep from Akron attending the conference. Her fragile, indomitable rendition of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” demonstrates the power of a single human voice.

★★★★

ANOMALISA

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Directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson. Written by Kaufman (as Francis Fregoli), based on his play. Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, David Thewlis, Tom Noonan. At Kendall Square. 90 minutes. R (strong sexual content, graphic [puppet] nudity, and language).

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.