Charlie Kaufman is a cartographer of the soul. You can picture him hunched over parchment accurately inking each dark river and, off to the side, cautioning that there be dragons.
What makes Kaufman cinema's best psychoanalyst is a contradiction. He sees people for who we are—hurtful, hopeful, lovely, lonely and dull—and yet believes that The Self is a delusion. His characters are complex and true, but they're never in control. They're costumes (Being John Malkovich), brain-wiped customers (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), and actors in someone else's play (Synecdoche, New York). He sees the world like an anxious party guest watching himself from above and groaning, “Why did I do that?” The shame matters more than any solution.
With each script, Kaufman has exaggerated his characters' impotence. In his newest, Anomalisa, he goes to the extreme by literally making them puppets. Anomalisa's stop-motion figurines look real. Their bellies sag, their testicles droop. Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson animate their brows and mouths so their speech is smooth, not that clap-clap-clatter of marionettes. But the faces are purposefully false. A crack runs across the bridge of the puppets' noses and circles their features so it looks like a mask. And when our protagonist, a depressive salesman, pulls his skin-plates apart in the mirror, exposing the mechanics he shares with everyone else, he screams.
I felt panicked before Anomalisa even began. Synecdoche, New York, the first of his scripts Kaufman directed, is tied for my favorite film of all time. (The 1981 Steve Martin musical Pennies From Heaven shares the top spot, and they're more alike than they sound.) It took Kaufman seven years to direct a second, and I'd half-hoped he never would. Synecdoche was an ambitious decades-spanning tragicomedy about the entirety of human experience. How do you top that?
Kaufman, ever conscious about his own limits, doesn't try. Anomalisa deliberately deflates expectations. The plot is small, banal, anonymous: a businessman meets a woman in an Ohio hotel. It could be happening right now. In fact, if you scan the bar of the Hyatt Regency Cincinnati, it probably is. But even in just one night, so ordinary in its small indignities — wonky keycards, awkward bellhops, drawn-out room service orders, claustrophobia-inducing carpets — Kaufman builds an emotional world we're nervous to enter, one we're already living in.
The man, Michael Stone, is on a lecture tour for his book about customer service. At first, nothing much happens. He endures a skittish airplane seat-mate and chatty cabbie, checks into his hotel, and apathetically calls his family. The stop motion minutiae is exact to the point that it teeters on the surreal, a perfectly hand-carved, wall-mounted hairdryer followed by a pictographic phone where he's stumped as to which button orders food. The hamburger? The roast chicken? The drumstick?
Of course, Kaufman's added a twist. Michael (David Thewlis) speaks with a British growl. But everyone else in his world—his wife, his son, his concierge, his ex-girlfriend—is voiced by the actor Tom Noonan. Noonan adjusts the volume of his speech, but otherwise sounds the same no matter who he's playing. This is how Michael, a commonplace narcissist, sees humanity. There's him, and then the mush of everyone else.
If we're honest, we all have our Michael moments. Kaufman diagnoses humanity, but doesn't judge. Michael is cold (the last name Stone is no accident) but also scared of his own coldness. “There's something wrong with me,” Michael confesses to his estranged ex Bella. “It's boring. Everything's boring.”
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Kaufman agrees that Michael's life is boring. No other director of an animated feature would tick away minutes on the lead character ordering dinner. Yet, what Kaufman's really driving at is perception. Michael sees mankind as monotonous. We see Michael as sad, privy to the intimacy of this gray-haired man fumbling into his pants. But the other people in Anomalisa must hear their own voices differently—they don't share his ego, they have their own. And when Michael, panicked by his false face, blunders into the hotel room of two saleswomen from Akron, Kaufman flips our perception again. The women gasp in delight. Michael's best-selling guide raised their profits 90 percent. To us, he's pathetic, but to them, he's a hero. Then one of the women, Lisa, speaks and her unique voice (by Jennifer Jason Leigh) sings through the hum. This rare creature can rescue him. Perhaps he hasn't given up on being a romantic hero after all.
Kaufman is pulling on a dozen strings, and how they move Michael and Lisa, audiences deserve to discover for themselves in the theater. Track his ideas to the top, however, and he's triggering the same questions he asked in Synecdoche: Why do we love some people more than others? Can we truly love anyone if we don't love ourselves?
At one point, Michael stumbles drunk into an adult toy store to find his boy a gift. He buys a wind-up Japanese sex doll. He gazes at this mechanical geisha which, we realize with a shudder, has experienced human lust. In this universe, it's another existential thought experiment: How different is Michael the puppet from his purchase? How different are we from him? Kaufman is taking our brains apart and showing us the gears. We still don't know how they work. But, reassembling ourselves after the credits roll, we might sense both our own fragility and, when someone's empathy engine fritzes, a shared absolution.
“Always remember the customer is an individual just like you,” reads Michael to a convention hall of Ohio businessmen. Most filmmakers would make the moment ironic. A few would say it's a sermon. Only Kaufman would recognize that this flawed man must keep repeating it to remind himself—just as introverted Kaufman is also doing with his entire movie. He'd never sit us down for a lecture. As Michael sighs, “Sometimes there's no lesson. That's a lesson in itself.” Instead, Kaufman has spent his career trying to explore human behavior, giving us his films as our map. I'll follow him anywhere.