(2015) *** 1/2 R
90 min. Paramount. Director: Charlie Kaufman. Cast: Tom Noonan, David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh.

/content/films/4867/1.jpgDepression can take the form of numbingly going through motions like an unfeeling automaton, virtually checked out of life. Near the outset of Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa, the protagonist checks in, to a Cincinnati hotel that just might hold the key to his salvation—if he can overcome his ennui.
One of cinema’s most uncompromising artists, Kaufman made his name with the head-trippy screenplays for Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, as well as Synecdoche, New York, which he directed. In adapting for the screen his play Anomalisa, Kaufman shares directing credit with animator Duke Johnson, as they have crafted this dramedy in mesmerizing stop-motion animation that challenges conventions of subject matter and style for big-screen animated features.

The film’s “hero” is Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a married-with-kids motivational speaker who travels from city to city to deliver customer-service advice (culled from his book “How May I Help You Help Them?”). As per the archetype of advice peddlers, this one badly needs some guidance of his own in escaping his dispiriting rut. “You can thrash about all you like,” Michael’s wife remarks of his lonely hotel bed. “It’s not that I like to thrash about,” Michael corrects her. “It’s restlessness.”

That restlessness leads Michael to consider enlisting an extramarital bedmate, and he finds a candidate in Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), one of a pair of groupies impressed by Michael’s work. Lisa, too, vibes loneliness and a longing for happiness, which she expresses through a humble, tender a cappella rendition of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”: “I want to be the one who walks in the sun…” Kaufman’s intentions prove similarly humble, as noted in the cautionary line “Sometimes there’s no lesson—that’s a lesson in itself.” Anomalisa, then, avoids unironic motivational lecture and offers a deadpan-funny slice-of-despairing life.

That said, Kaufman and Johnson score thematic points on the natures of depression and desire. The puppets are as much message as medium (particularly in a reverie that finds Michael going to pieces in a mirror) and, albeit counterintuitively, the silicone figures give us the healthy distance to allow an anthropological self-study. The hotel in question, the Fregoli, alludes to the Fregoli delusion, a rare neuropsychiatric syndrome by which paranoid sufferers mistakenly believe that different people are a single person; indeed, every character Michael meets, male and female, apart from the singular (anoma)Lisa, shares the same facial features and speaks with the voice of actor Tom Noonan.

This gambit serves as a source of humor as well as a neat expression of the great greyness of depression, only broken through by the colorful extraordinary of a unique candidate for friendship or romance. There’s humor, too, in Seinfeldian absurdities (shopping for a child’s gift in a sex-toy shop), Albee-esque conversational crossed wires, and everyday fumblings (from the hotel shower to sexual trysting). The brilliant vocal performances employ subtle sensitivity to enable the laughs and even a wee bit of sympathy for Michael despite being yet another midlife-crisis white guy on the big screen. Anomalisa may have no lesson to push, but it’s undeniably an artful rendering of the post-millennial man adrift, in search of any port than the one he’s made for himself.

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