In 2005, my wife and I went to an event at UCLA's Royce Hall called Theater of the New Ear. Promised were two one-act "radio plays" – works specifically written to be performed as staged readings. The first was to be Sawbones, written and directed by the Coen Brothers. The second, Hope Leaves the Theater, by Charlie Kaufman.
For reasons that remain unknown, Sawbones was cut from the bill and replaced by something called Anomalisa, written by a pseudonymous-sounding fellow named "Francis Fregoli". For ten whole years, I had no idea that Fregoli was the nom de plume for Kaufman himself; as Anomalisa lacked the self-referential qualities of Kaufman's other work – Hope Leaves the Theater was meta as all get-out – I suspected that evening that Fregoli was Tom Noonan, the actor (and sometime writer) who performed in Anomalisa alongside David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh.
In short, I didn't pay much attention to Anomalisa, partly because my wife and I were sitting at the far left of the theater and were unable to see Leigh, which I was grumpy about because she's so great; partly because Thewlis, who I also admire, seemed bored that night; partly because I was anxious to see Meryl Streep in Hope Leaves the Theater; partly because I was annoyed about the Coens dropping out; and partly because I figured that Francis Fregoli, pseudonym or not, was no one of any significance.
A decade later, Anomalisa has rather unexpectedly found new life as a feature-length piece of puppet animation.
Kaufman's original stage script has remained mostly intact: Michael Stone (Thewlis), an unhappy motivational speaker, arrives in Cincinnati to give a speech at a conference, and finds that literally every voice he hears is Noonan's, until by chance he bumps into Lisa (Leigh) – a true anomaly. (I'm not being clever; the film's dialogue spells out the "anomaly-Lisa" portmanteau.)
One nice aspect about this adaptation is that the construct of Noonan portraying all but the two main characters, which isn't uncommon in a staged reading, becomes much more integral to Kaufman's story on screen: watching puppet after puppet speak with Tom Noonan's sluggish tenor makes the proceedings more surreal and, dare I say, more Kaufmanesque.
Duke Johnson and his animation team provide beautiful work. The puppets, their faces produced in a 3D printer, are eerily lifelike, save for the intentionally distracting seams that both circumscribe and bisect their faces, rendering them as masks. The animation is fluid, subtle, and delicate, as are the tiny sets and Joe Passarelli's cinematography.
Anomalisa isn't for everyone. The actors are fine: Thewlis is more engaged here than he was at UCLA that night, Leigh is terrific as always, and Noonan – well, you will either get a kick out of hearing his voice come out of every character's mouth, or it will grate on you. (I think it is supposed to grate on you.) But Kaufman's script, packed with ennui and self-loathing and really only one big idea, is the test. It might say a lot to you. It might say nothing. In a way, it's the weakest part of the film, perhaps because it was written so long ago, for something else. But for animation buffs, the work is a wonder to behold.