The first act of Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s animated film Anomalisa plays out as an unassuming, slice-of-life drama: It follows an Englishman named Michael Stone (David Thewlis) as he flies to Cincinnati, takes a cab to his hotel, and checks into his room, brusquely interacting with chatty strangers the whole time. But the film—made with stop-motion animation and eerily realistic, 3D-printed puppets—is slowly pervaded by a sense of horror. As Michael chats with his cab driver about Cincinnati chili, or a hotel clerk about the kind of room he wants, it becomes clear that every other character, whether male or female, is speaking with the same voice (Tom Noonan’s, to be precise). It’s a remarkably effective depiction of the world’s sameness, seen through the eyes of a character who’s long forgotten how to connect with people.
Into this nightmare walks—what else—a special woman. Anomalisa, like so much of Kaufman’s work, is about someone who sees himself as existing outside of society, and who’s both emboldened and depressed by that fact. If that sounds like a tough person to spend 90 minutes with, well, it is. He’s a man who sleepwalks through life, who’s fallen for and walked away from multiple women for reasons he can’t explain, who literally sees everyone else as a drone. That is, until he hears Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), another hotel guest, whose voice stands out of the crowd for him. As Anomalisa explores their meet-cute, watching the movie evolves into a frustrating internal struggle: Should viewers feel happy for the pair? Or terrified for Lisa?