dir. Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson
written by: Charlie Kaufman
starring: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan
3.25 out of 4 stars
Charlie Kaufman, that peculiar, creative man behind the script for Eternal Sunshine and the Spotless Mind and Adaptation., has gifted many treasures at the movies. Providing the words for eccentric auteurs such as Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze, he managed to win an Oscar and receive general universal praise for his examinations of the more bizarre inner workings of the human mind, and in one case specifically the inner workings of John Malkovich. For his second directorial feature, he joins Duke Johnson to direct his own adaptation of a stopmotion animated feature of his play Anomalisa.
Michael Stone (David Thewlis, aka Remus Lupin from the Harry Potter movies) is an author of customer service books who has arrived in Cincinnati to speak at a convention. Shacking up in a ritzy hotel, Michael disastrously reconnects with an old flame and encounters inexplicable fans during what seems to be an emotional or mental breakdown. Finding an unusual connection with Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), he embarks on a night alone with this woman to try to discern a meaning in their relationship.
The voice cast is notable. Thewlis has the type of drowning British accent that accentuates the loneliness and disconnection in Michael Stone. More energetic is a nervous Leigh with terrible self-esteem as Lisa. Even more lonely that Michael, Leigh’s voice is all questions and apologies. Terribly unsure of her body and her scarred face, she lacks all semblance of her own personae. He voice aches even when laughing, and she lets jokes leak through her quiet exterior, adding an additional punch to her shy presence. Tom Noonan accepts the rest of the voice work with remarkable skill. Managing to blend every other character using his same voice, he creates a distinct pattern of speech for each individual. Even in groups where he is conversing with himself, slight difference make all the point.
In the film, Michael Stone is experiencing a disconnect from all those around him. Everyone from his wife and son to strangers he encounters possesses the same voice and manner to him. The movie progresses in a subtle, charming examination of what it is like to be human. Awkward encounters and destructive relationships plague his day, and reflecting upon the events in his life, he cannot quite determine whether it is he was is deranged or if the world is as unsettlingly dull and repetitious as he perceives. The script flows through an unexpectedly humorous collection of interactions through a good amount of the movie. Unfortunately, post the coupling of he and Lisa, the movie begins to fall apart. A far too obvious existential dream tore the fabric the early portions had knit. What was quirky and understated became in your face, the equivalent of a puppet receiving an intervention from his mind. The remainder of the movie is disheartening, rocky and distant from the original movie. If this is mental illness, we’re not sure. If it’s Michael being terrible, that’s possible as well. It just didn’t all come together.
Kaufman has skills with the unusual, and his direction with Johnson is top notch here. The design of this film, though the script went in unexpected directions, is original and imaginative, taking a creative take on stop motion animation, separating the physical from the emotional. With an talented voice cast, this team has created an uneven but very original take on the human condition.