Charlie Kaufman’s films start inside the deepest folds of the human brain and steadily work their way down until they reach the heart. He begins with the complex workings of the mind, busting through metatextual boundaries like Donald O’Connor through a wall made of paper, but then delves deeper into such potent themes as fractured identity (Being John Malkovich) personal insecurity (Adaptation.), the fragility of love (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and creative stasis (Synecdoche, NY). Kaufman’s newest picture, the all-puppet stop-motion marvel Anomalisa, spends decidedly less time crawling up its creator’s mental a-hole than the films that have preceded it. Nevertheless, this marks the fifth major masterpiece for the writer-director.
It’s a relatively low-concept project, but only for an artist as inimitably heady as Kaufman does that still allow for the inclusion of marionette cunnilingus, surreal gay-panic dream sequences, and deadpan visits to a Cincinnati sex shop. David Thewlis voices Michael Stone, a successful businessman who’s flown to Ohio to deliver one of his famed corporate-leadership speeches. Talking points are the last thing on his mind, however; he’s in an existential free-fall and desperate for a hand to grab onto, whether that’s a bitter ex-lover (Tom Noonan, who voices everyone save the two main characters in a typically inspired manipulation of the film form) or Lisa, a stranger with soft eyes and low self-esteem (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Kaufman, ever the pro when it comes to finding strength and nobility in the commonfolk that surround tortured artists, imbues Lisa with more tragic and brutally realistic life than most flesh-and-blood performers could hope to manage. She hates her face and loves the musical stylings of Cyndi Lauper (an impromptu performance of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” goes from poignant to hilarious and back to poignant again in a minute’s time).
So there are the miracles we can take for granted, such as the astonishingly fluid animation and puppet design so detailed that even the lines on lips take on their own definition. And at this point, it’d be a disappointment if the film didn’t exhibit Kaufman’s distinctly surrealist comedy chops (a hotel phone appears to offer six different buttons for room service). But even after proving himself an unqualified genius time and time again, every new success from Kaufman lands with the emotional weight of the very first time. Michael Stone and Lisa may be made of wood and plaster, but the longing, depression, loneliness, and faint flickers of hope that they display are unbearably human.
Rating: 5 All-Strings-Attached Burritos out of 5
This film was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Here’s a look at some of the other awesome movies coming out this fall: