'swathed in the kind of middle-class malaise even Woody Allen would consider turning his nose up at'
Anomalisa fits snugly into Charlie Kaufman's existing oeuvre, and as such does little to win me over into the Kaufman fan club. Like a lot of his work, this animated fable exploring the Fregoli delusion (the belief by an individual that different people are the same person, who changes their appearance or is in disguise) is bitter in tone, melancholy of mood and swathed in the kind of middle-class malaise even Woody Allen would consider turning his nose up at.
Protagonist Michael Stone (David Thewlis), for example, is a philandering husband and father, promoting a terrible book about customer service through a lecture in Cincinnati. There's little reason to like him (not, by any means, a compulsory trait of a character), but equally as little reason to invest in him in any way. We see Michael chase an old flame before, no, becoming certain that Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is the one for him, due to the fact that she doesn't fit into his Fregoli delusion-influenced view of the world. There are no stakes for any of this. Michael's successful (or not) romancing of Lisa seems to matter little to him and to the wider world of the film. His belief (or not) in the Fregoli delusion world again seems to impact no-one but himself. The outcomes of the film, for anyone, don't seem to be influenced by seeing Michael and his adventure through to any one of several possible resolutions.
Co-directing his own script of his own play with Duke Johnson, Kaufman never seems to help his cause by pitching his material from vantage points which seem as snidely elitist as they are genuinely clever. The opening moments pose a joke about the opera Lakmé and the use of its music in a British Airways advert, at the expense of a Cincinnati taxi driver. Kaufman might not be on the side of Michael, but he's certainly not on the side of the every man either and subtle snippets like this make it difficult to warm to his film's viewpoint. His claims in this BBC Radio 6 interview, that he and Johnson were all but robbed of several awards by evil overlords Pixar (who just happen to have made the better film) back up a feeling that this is a film made by someone who thinks it is Important.
The conceit of Kaufman's original play was that the audience couldn't see the players and so were forced to create the visuals of the auditory experience in their minds: powerful when you consider one actor (Tom Noonan) creates every voice in the film apart from Michael and Lisa. Obviously, that doesn't really work for a big screen adaption and here Kaufman and Johnson are more successful. Though the stop motion puppets are distracting and unreal throughout (the join through their eyeline makes Anomalisa's world look like it is populated solely by spectacle wearers), there is a lot of beauty in their creation too. Michael's flight in to Cincinnati is arguably the film's strongest visual point, but even small elements like the Horror-film inspired hotel corridor look fantastic.
If you're interested in something - and Kaufman clearly is interested in the Fregoli delusion - then perhaps a Documentary is sometimes the more natural way to explore it. The alternative is to find a meaningful narrative through which to explore it in fiction: perfectly possible, but perhaps more detached from your original point of interest. Yes, Kaufman has made a film which depicts the delusion, but that is all he has done; there's no compelling story about it here, no comment on the delusion and its impact on our world, no reason to experience satisfaction. Anomalisa is, ultimately, an empty exploration.
Anomalisa is released in UK cinemas on Friday 11th March.