Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), a middle-aged British customer service guru, flies into Cincinatti to deliver a speech, checks into a hotel and telephones an old girlfriend who lives locally – whom he inexplicably (to her) walked out on ten years ago. They meet in the hotel bar, but she’s still furious and he can’t explain what he did. Then, after making a call to his wife and son, he meets two attendees of the conference he’s speaking at, and gets drunk with them, then picks Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) either as a one-night stand or a new life partner.
Written by Charlie Kaufman and co-directed by Kaufman and animator Duke Johnson, Anomalisa recounts its small-scale plot – almost a short story – using very lifelike puppets (and miraculously detailed sets reproducing the blandest airport and hotel interiors) and a voice cast of three. Michael suffers from a syndrome whereby everyone else in the world – with miraculously rare exceptions – seems to him to be the same person … it takes a few minutes to realise almost all the other puppets he comes across have the same not-quite-detailed face (‘Everyone Else’ is played marvellously with an asexual whine by Tom Noonan) and when Lisa, who has a distinctive face (slightly scarred) and voice, shows up, it’s a genuine shock. Of course, the film’s high doesn’t last … Michael has a genuinely upsetting nightmare where he’s called to the cavernous basement of the hotel by an avatar of Everyone Else who declares love for him but also terrifies him (his face, visibly wonky, falls off its armature), then he wakes up to find Lisa morphing to join the mass and we realise what happened with his old girlfriend and get a sense of the hell he inhabits with his current wife and child (‘Slugger’).
It may be one of the year’s most horrifying movies, but like much of Kaufman’s work it’s deeply humanist, fighting for caring values even as they fall away from the viewpoint charactrer. And Leigh’s breathy cover of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ is haunting and heartbreaking. For all that it was cool she was one of the Hateful Eight, this script is the best material the underrated actress has been given lately and she soars with it.