Yes, there is puppet sex in Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson's Anomalisa, awkward as one-night stands between flesh and blood strangers can be. Not the marionette kink of Team America: World Police but sad, desperate sex to be regretted later.
The scene everyone mentions when discussing Anomalisa is part of another odd, affecting scenario by Kaufman, the brain salad surgeon who previously took viewers inside John Malkovich's head and Jim Carrey's spotless mind. Anomalisa is Kaufman at his most strangely mundane, paring down a troubled traveler's psyche to one eventful night and morning after in Cincinnati.
Michael Stone (voice of David Thewlis) is the successful author of a customer service bible, visiting to speak at a convention. The movie's first act reveals Michael's issues, including an ex-lover he deserted years ago who now lives in Cincinnati, and an unsatisfying family back home in California.
Michael's malaise unfolds in a series of encounters familiar to travelers: an intrusive seatmate on a flight, a know-it-all cabbie, the soulless hotel staff (likely using the author's customer service tips), finicky door key cards and showers. Anomalisa feels as real as posable stitched felt puppets can be.
That is, except for Kaufman's decision to have nearly every other voice, regardless of gender or age, performed by one actor, Tom Noonan. This manifests the sameness of Michael's life; everyone sounding the same to him, easier to tune out as his sociability, maybe sanity, slips away.
Then comes a miracle to Michael's ears, a voice sounding like no other. It belongs to Lisa Hesselman (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a self-conscious customer service rep from Akron, Ohio, in town for the convention and Michael's speech. Michael feels alive again, ready to surrender everything for this anomaly in his life, this anoma-Lisa.
Kaufman and Johnson play this material straight, except for an unraveling nightmare sequence in which, like Michael and Lisa's sexual encounter, the camera is mainly kept at a distance, purposely understating. Nothing too dramatic occurs in Anomalisa, so viewers may value its arresting form more than its content.
One scene to cherish is a conversation between Michael and Lisa, revealing her affection for Cyndi Lauper songs. He asks to hear her sing one, anything to hear that voice. Lisa responds with a melancholy version of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, sung by Leigh as a woman believing herself incapable of such.
The story hardens as both Michael and Lisa return to their senses, one for the better, the other not so much. Anomalisa ends with a major decision and a minor triumph, the result of a one-night stand in Cincinnati. Sad, desperate? Maybe. But in the hands of Kaufman and Johnson, an extraordinary movie.
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.