Anomalisa Voices of David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan. Directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson. Rated R. Opens Friday at AMC Town Square.
Anomalisa begins in darkness, with a chorus of voices that all turn out to be the same voice. That’s the voice of actor Tom Noonan, whose flat, almost soporific tones come out of the mouths of nearly every character in Charlie Kaufman’s strange, downbeat stop-motion animated film. Kaufman originally wrote Anomalisa as a radio play, and although the animation (led by co-director Duke Johnson, an Adult Swim veteran) is beautifully detailed, the core of the story (and its themes of alienation and melancholy) lies in the voices.
Disappointingly, though, those themes are laid out pretty clearly at the beginning of the movie, and Kaufman struggles to find ways to expand on them over the next 90 minutes. As Noonan’s voice emerges from a range of characters while downtrodden middle-aged customer-service expert Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) travels to a business conference, it becomes obvious that Michael feels alone and disconnected from everyone around him, including his wife and young son. And when Michael finally hears a different voice (that of Jennifer Jason Leigh) coming from fellow hotel guest Lisa, it’s obvious that he’ll latch onto her as the one beacon of hope in his otherwise miserable world.
Michael and Lisa are both miserable in dull, commonplace ways, which means they have reasonably comfortable lives that are lacking in spark or passion. Kaufman and Johnson focus on the tedium of basic tasks (opening a door, walking into a room, making a phone call), which the painstakingly realistic animation makes even more apparent, and the movie lulls itself into a similar tedium. In his best work as a screenwriter (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Kaufman has used fantastical conceits to heighten the power of familiar emotions, but Anomalisa seems to have the opposite goal: It removes anything fantastical or even enjoyable from the emotions that people feel for each other, replacing them with repetitive numbness. Instead of finding the sublime in the mundane, Anomalisa turns out to just be mundane.