The anomaly is Charlie Kaufman's stock in trade. All his films are about the outward manifestation of singular anomalies, that become visible or tangible in equally singular and bewildering ways. Yet it's worth asking if the acclaimed screenwriter's stock in trade has become a crutch or a refuge. Not that Anomalisa is a sleepwalking effort; it's merely an underachieving one, recycling a "radio play" that Mr. Kaufman wrote ten years ago for composer Carter Burwell's "Theater of the New Ear" series of staged readings. Its strengths and weaknesses both derive from the ingenious device that anchors it: the story of a man looking for that elusive human connection in a world of conformity and sameness has all characters - bar the two leads - voiced by the same actor.
For the film version he co-directed with animator Duke Johnson, Mr. Kaufman doubles down on this device, by making the film in stop-motion animation, using puppets that all are eerily, implacably identical, all voiced by Tom Noonan. Mr. Noonan reprises his role from the 2005 readings as do the two other actors voicing the leads: David Thewlis as customer service guru and travel warrior Michael Stone, from whose point of view everything is seen, and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lisa, the customer service rep he becomes entranced with during a Cincinnati overnight stay.
Lisa is the escape from conformity and dull routine that Michael has been looking for, the promise of a fresh start or a new day. For the short length of the film they're the only ones who truly stand out from the crowd - but for how long can this be? After all, Messrs. Kaufman and Johnson's puppets all look the same, whether it's Mr. Thewlis, Ms. Leigh or Mr. Noonan voicing them, and the film works on that thin razor's edge between hope and disappointment. The beautifully realized stop-motion animation (with an attention to visual detail and craft that many live-action productions don't have) becomes a smart and high-concept device that makes literal the screenwriter's concept.
But once that device hits peak cruise, the film effectively goes nowhere with it and starts circling in a holding pattern. That doesn't make Anomalisa any less thoughtful, even if surprisingly restrained coming from a writer known for his narrative fireworks. It just means it never truly clicks as you hope it would; at some point I found myself thinking that it might have been punchier as a half-hour short. There's much to admire here, but I came away from it disappointed that I didn't like it more.
US, 2015, 90 minutes
VOICE CAST Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan, David Thewlis
DIR Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson; SCR Mr. Kaufman; DP Joe Passarelli (widescreen); M Carter Burwell; PROD DES John Joyce, Huy Vu; COST DES Susan Donyun; ED Garret Elkins; SP Derek Smith; PROD Rosa Tran, Mr. Johnson, Mr. Kaufman, Dino Stamatopoulos
A Starburns Industries and Snoot Films production; released by Paramount Pictures