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Kaufman Is an Adept Puppet Master With Thoughtful Anomalisa

The latest project from the eccentric mind of Charlie Kaufman is an amusing and provocative look at relationships incorporating stop-motion puppet animation in an audacious new way.
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From a technical standpoint, Anomalisa doesn’t revolutionize animated filmmaking. But from a narrative standpoint, that might be another matter.

The latest project from the eccentric mind of filmmaker Charlie Kaufman (along with co-director Duke Johnson) is an amusing and provocative look at relationships incorporating stop-motion puppet animation in an audacious new way.

What feels like a rambling and self-indulgent psychotherapy session one minute seems innovative and profound the next – the type of existential potpourri that might be difficult to embrace but is impossible to dismiss.

The story takes place during a single night at a hotel in Cincinnati, where Michael (voiced by David Thewlis) is a British motivational speaker and author of books on customer service who’s in town for a presentation. So maybe it’s ironic that given his expertise, he’s a neurotic mess behind the scenes.

After talking with his wife and child on the phone, Michael seeks a cure for his perpetual feelings of depression and loneliness. He meets a pair of female guests across the hall, and takes a liking to Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), after finding her timid lack of self-confidence alluring.

Their relationship develops to the point where a one-night stand seems inevitable, yet it’s hardly a path to long-term romantic redemption for either of them.

Gradually, Kaufman’s screenplay reveals details about the two primary characters, who are each lost souls with plenty of quirks and insecurities (after all, part of their “date” is spent breaking down the deep meaning in Cyndi Lauper lyrics). She tends to be the more intriguing and mysterious of the two, but perhaps that’s because his conflicts are more internalized.

In terms of visual style, the marionette-style figures have movements that are slow and not totally fluid, with detachable faces and like-sounding adult male voices (for clever reasons that are eventually made clear), for which Tom Noonan supplies the audio.

Kaufman is fascinated with mundane details here, as his entire story might have been a 10-minute segment in the average romantic comedy. Sharply written if too deliberately paced, the film tends to remain emotionally distant despite the physical intimacy of the protagonists.

Needless to say, Anomalisa isn’t a cartoon for children, but animation buffs might appreciate its striking technique while simultaneously feeling better about their love lives by comparison.

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