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As much as I love the films of Charlie Kaufman, I dread having to write about them. The visionary screenwriter whose works include such mindbending modern classics as Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation (2002), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) are confounding enough for a critic to adequately summarize in story terms, let alone attempt to analyze thematically. His previous feature, the love-it-or-hate-it masterpiece Synechdoche, NY (2008), proved to be his most dense and multilayered work, as well as his most personal and somber. It was the rare sort of directorial debut that also felt like it could be the final statement from a filmmaker who had said everything he could’ve hoped to on the subjects of love and death, time and memory, the artistic process, and the impermanence of the human experience. Thankfully, Kaufman’s latest film, the stop-motion animated drama Anomalisa (co-directed by Duke Johnson), is a wonderful little gem, as well as a must-see for Kaufman admirers.

Based on Kaufman’s 2005 sound play of the same name and retaining the original cast of voice actors, Anomalisa is a painstakingly constructed rendering of a surprisingly simple story. It concerns the inner-struggles of Michael (David Thewlis), despondent author and estranged family man staying at the fictional Fregoli hotel while in Cincinnati for a public speaking engagement. I was not surprised to learn the hotel’s name is a reference to the Fregoli delusion, which according to Wikipedia is a rare psychological disorder in which a person comes to believe various people in their life are actually a single individual in disguise. This idea is fittingly made literal as every person whom Michael encounters during his visit, regardless of age or gender, shares the same monotone voice (provided by Tom Noonan) with the lone exception of devoted fan Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Michael is immediately drawn to the sweet, socially awkward young woman, and as they begin to grow closer the possibility of finding true love with her becomes his best chance at breaking away from his dreary, monotonous state.

In light of how the brilliantly-utilized visual techniques employed by directors who Kaufman previously collaborated with were so integral to the success with which the screenwriter’s ideas have been realized before, it’s understandable why some viewers of Anomalisa would be immediately puzzled by Kaufman and Johnson’s choice of using stop-motion animation to tell their story—an intimate character study set entirely in one real-world location, no less. However, from the moment one first takes note of the gorgeously detailed, rain-soaked Cincinnati exteriors of the film’s opening to the soft, warmly-lit hues that color the spaces in which Michael and Lisa converse, any reservations one has regarding the choice of format fall to the wayside. Anomalisa is probably the most human stop-motion animated film ever made, as well as one of the most visually distinct. Much like their contemporary Wes Anderson did with his Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), Kaufman and Johnson intentionally designed their puppets with numerous imperfections, their worn appearance appropriately mirroring the frayed emotional states of their characters. Thewlis and Leigh find just the right notes in their vocal performances, effectively ranging from being soberly brusque to cautiously wistful depending on the tone of a scene. The direction and voice acting during the scene in which their characters make love strongly recalls the similarly moving one between Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson in Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), one suspects the director intentionally borrowed that scene from his frequent collaborator’s original sound play.

All of the familiar hallmarks of Kaufman’s work are present in Anomalisa; a fascination with the inner workings of the human mind, the bittersweet romance shared between two lonely souls, the often bleak evocation of contempary life, and the various emotional hang-ups a creative person wrestles with, are all present in the brief 90-minute run time. As with his previous films, Anomalisa is likely to puzzle and bewilder its fair share of audiences, especially those who haven’t always enjoyed his work—as the worldview Kaufman expresses in his portrait of loneliness varies from being absurdly comic to nightmarishly depressing. Still, Anomalisa stands as another fascinating, thoughtful, and poignant work from one of modern cinema’s most remarkably distinct voices.

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