Need proof that animation can not only equal live-action filmmaking but beat the flesh-and-blood version at its own game? Try Anomalisa, as haunting and hypnotic an R-rated love story for grownups as you’ll see anywhere. Leave it to Charlie Kaufman, the virtuoso screenwriter of Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, to follow up his intellectually audacious 2008 directorial debut with Synecdoche, New York with another groundbreaker. Anomalisa, partly funded through Kickstarter, digs deep into the mysteries of human nature by using stop-motion puppets with faces that look like masks. Kaufman, enlisting co-director Duke Johnson (an Emmy winner for a stop-motion Christmas episode of Community), works wonders and not just because the puppets get naked and get it on. What’s miraculously inventive here is the way these rubbery, barely sketched-in figures come to remind us of ourselves.
What happens? A motivational speaker named Michael Stone (superbly voiced by David Thewlis) spends the night at a Ohio hotel where he will give a speech to customer-service reps attracted by his bestseller, “How May I Help You Help Them.” In his room, Michael visibly sags. His marriage is shit, as we hear from a phone call home to his wife and son. His room is impersonal, deadening in its luxe anonymity. Out of desperation, he arranges to have a drink in the hotel bar with Bella, the local woman he dumped a decade ago. Bella’s voice is filled with resentment and recrimination. To Michael, every voice sounds the same. Maybe because it literally is the same, since the invaluable Tom Noonan speaks for every character — male and female — that Michael encounters, from taxi driver to concierge.
That is until he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an exuberant sales rep who worships at the altar of Michael. When he invites this perky stranger back to his room, she can’t believe her luck. Lisa has her share of hard-luck stories, of loves lost and opportunities missed. Michael relates to her loneliness, but admires her resilience, something he lacks. The sex is perfunctory — Lisa has some body issues — but their connection is real. And Leigh’s voice performance is truly a work of art. She can go from sweet to sorrowful without missing the lifetime of beats in between. And when she sings for Michael — a slowed-down, seriously heartbreaking take on Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” — he’s a goner. You will be, too, about the time you forget you’re watching puppets and not the real thing. The bracing humor and aching tenderness Leigh brings to the role deserves the highest praise.
Just don’t go hoping for lasting love, though Michael briefly believes the anomaly in his life that is Lisa will be his salvation. (Not in Kaufman country it won’t.) And yet Anomalisa, which originated on stage as a sound experiment from composer Carter Burwell, gets under your skin in ways you can’t imagine. This unique and unforgettable movie seems to be made up of scraps — a few puppets, three voice actors, the barest of budgets. And yet, filtered through Kaufman’s searching mind and soulful brilliance, the result is a masterpiece.