This one is called “Anomalisa,” which scrunches together the word “anomaly” and the name of the film’s heroine, Lisa. The film is an R-rated, stop-motion animated film — Kaufman’s first cartoon — which he co-directed with top stop-motion animator Duke Johnson.
Like anything coming from Kaufman’s spotless mind, “Anomalisa” defies easy categorization or comprehension but rather submerges you in a surreal and slightly comic world of the imagination. It features puppets that fully disclose their artifice as the hinges of their faces are not digitally removed as they usually are in stop-motion.
The film thus calls attention to its own making, to its puppetry, yet, amazingly, the two main characters, fully realized with intricate anatomical details both clothed and disrobed, come off as much more “real” than many actors in live-action films.
The story takes place over a 24-hour period as Michael Stone, a customer service guru, British-born but living in L.A., arrives in Cincinnati to deliver a lecture. Afflicted with acute depression caused by the mundanity of his existence, Stone meets someone he can truly connect with, an Akron baked-goods sales rep named Lisa.
One of the first clues to Kaufman’s strange new world is that these two characters are given voice by actors David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Everyone else, literally every other character, male or female, is voiced by Tom Noonan.
And everyone else looks eerily alike. Minor changes here and there in clothes, expressions, attitudes and movements, of course, but really really alike.
You might also notice Michael checks into the Fregoli Hotel. Grab a dictionary: The Fregoli Delusion is a rare syndrome in which the patient believes multiple people are the same person in disguise. Hmmm …
The darkly comic journey of Michael Stone pushes and exceeds the usual boundaries of stop-motion animation in that language is salty and nudity frequent with a sex scene between the happily surprised Michael and the shy and awkward Lisa Hesselman who lacks social confidence.
There is a tenderness in this coupling that Kaufman and Johnson bring off with the aid of supremely talented technicians specializing in sculpture, molding and casting of puppet animation. These two are clumsy in their exploration of each other’s body, as people the first time often are, yet caring and joyous in their discovery of one another. Can such bliss last?
The world they inhabit, the one with lookalike people — their bodies perhaps snatched away for replacement by alien duplicates as in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” — wars against their love affair. A hotel manager even summons Michael down the the building’s lower depths to discuss a “delicate matter” involving his overnight guest only this turns out to be a dream sequence. Or is it?
The story originated as a “radio play” by Kaufman in 2005 as part of composer Carter Burwell’s Theater of a New Ear at UCLA’s Royce Hall in Los Angeles.(Burwell scored the Kaufman penned screenplays for “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation.”) These same three actors performed their roles on a bare stage accompanied by a chamber ensemble and a Foley sound artist.
But events conspired to bring the material to producers who saw it as an opportunity for stop-motion animation. Kaufman quickly came on board. The dialogue remains virtually intact from the radio play.
In a cinematic art form where you’re moving fast if you can create two seconds of film a day, this project took two years to make following fund-raising with a Kickstarter campaign. Despite a highly limited budget, the quality of the stop-motion is right up there with the best work of an Aardman Animations or Laika production.
The film deals with social isolation, that feeling of apartness nearly everyone feels from time to time. While the situation of these particular characters is clearly chronic, “Anomalisa” makes the case that disillusionment with one’s lot in life, with one’s job, family and routine, plays a role in this isolation.
The film is frequently comic in its depiction of two hapless characters, one seen as supremely confident in his area of authority yet in charge of almost nothing else in his own life, while the other never dreams she has a way out of her loneliness.
The surrounding lookalike characters — Noonan makes no concession to whether they’re male or female, keeping a similar male tone for each — are used for mostly comic effects even though there is something slightly ominous about them.
They feel robotic, programmed to perform duly appointed tasks, make small talk and affect a surface good cheer. Plaintive string music by Burwell adds to the melancholy achieved by this funny-sad meditation on depression.
In its own strange way this stop-motion animated film is one of the most human films in recent memory.
Opens: December 30, 2015 limited (Paramount Pictures)
Production companies: Snoot Entertainment, Starburns Industries
Voice cast: Jennifer Jason Leigh, David Thewlis, Tom Noonan
Directors: Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson
Screenwriter: Charlie Kaufman
Based on the play by: Charlie Kaufman
Producers: Rosa Tran, Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman, Dino Stamatopoulos
Executive producers: James A. Fino, Dan Harmon, Joe Russo II, Keith Calder, Jessica Calder, Aaron Mitchell, Kassandra Mitchell, Pandora Edmiston, David Fuchs, Simon Ore, David Rheingold, Adrian Versteegh
Director of photography: Joe Passarelli
Production designers: John Joyce, Huy Vu
Costume designer: Susan Donym
Music: Carter Burwell
Visual effects supervisor: Derek Smith
Animation supervisor: Dan Driscoll
Editor: Garret Elkins
R rating, 90 minutes