One is the loneliest number in the cinema of Charlie Kaufman. The heralded screenwriter of such emo, meta, brain twisters as Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has consistently focused on insecure and melancholic men/artists who are desperately afraid of being alone. Often, they turn inward for answers, producing surreal flourishes that help reconcile these oppressive bouts of angst.
This motif continues in Kaufman's sophomore effort behind the camera co-directed with Duke Johnson, a bizarre and unsettling stop-motion animation titled Anomalisa. Sullen customer service expert Michael Stone (David Thewlis) arrives in Cincinnati for an industry conference where he will provide the keynote address to thousands of adoring fans. Haunted by the words of an ex-girlfriend, and seemingly all the world's voices that blur together as one, Michael appears boxed in by regret.
To literalize Michael's isolation, or perhaps the consequences of his hubris run amok, Kaufman and Johnson employ the great character actor Tom Noonan to voice every other speaking part but one. These include hotel concierges, taxi drivers, women and children, who all happen share the same face despite gender or ethnicity. In one of the year's most impressive performances, he's fittingly credited as "Everyone Else."
Whether Michael looks down on the rest of humanity or simply doesn't care to understand other people's nuances is left ambiguous. But Kaufman and Johnson are critical of his denial to address the issue in the first place. Much of Anomalisa grapples with the consequences of Michael's cascading delusion. It grows increasingly potent after he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a telemarketer from Akron, Ohio, who is attending the conference and harbors the only other distinct voice in the film.
Their one-night stand acts as a compact parallel to the other intense relationships that have come to define Michael's existence. Since Noonan voices both his wife and ex-girlfriend, it's clear that Michael has already grown tired of these women, with Lisa providing a momentary angelic counterpoint.
Anomalisa never shies away from the depths of Michael's self-pity. A dream sequence late in the film suggests yet another cyclical shift in his narcissistic consciousness; the basement office of his hotel turns into a purgatory of wish fulfillment gone wrong.
"I lose everyone," Michael moodily tells Lisa, but in truth alienating people has become just as habitual for him as brushing his teeth or having sex. It's a way of selfishly sustaining his own existence, no matter the pain it brings to others, those that can be easily grouped into the category of "everyone else."
The script for Anomalisa might not feel as screwy as Kaufman's previous work, but its just as scathing, wryly addressing the way Michael rationalizes his own bad behavior through unhappiness and angry ideology. Look no further than Michael's rant-laden conference speech, which turns chaotic and political at an inopportune moment. The film isn't arguing that all men suffer from this self-inflicted malady, but that all men are capable of creating their own similarly delusional narrative to deflect from the consequences of their actions.
Left to watch from the sidelines, Noonan's cadre of diverse personalities and perspectives are unforgivably clumped into one banal representation of inferiors. Who knows how many missed opportunities have come and gone in Michael's life, how many unique lives he's failed to appreciate.
Anomalisa, which opens on Friday, Jan. 15, finds its heart in the pragmatic pliability of Lisa, an ordinary soul who miraculously realizes early on that Michael's infatuation can only be seen as fleeting. This is powerful since she's able to live in the moment and appreciate the affection and adrenaline rush of their unison. Even though her psyche is never afforded the transparency of Michael's, she feels undeniably more human.
In the end, it's Noonan's voice(s) that linger long after Michael has retreated from view. As a result, Anomalisa is not just a character study about one self-defeating man who can't see the forest for the trees, but one that rather overtly hints at all the other character studies (and voices) worthy of our attention.