Anomalisa (2015): Charlie Kaufman’s First Animated Feature

Make no mistake, though Anomalisa is credited to two co-directors, Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, thematically, this innovative feature is very much an authorial enterprise, bearing the distinctive signature of Kaufman as one of the most brilliant cinematic minds of the past fifteen years.

Our Grade: B+ (***1/2 out of *****)


Anomalisa poster.jpg

Theatrical release poster

Johnson, who is a graduate of NYU, previously made the animated Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole series and the animation short, Beforel Orel: Trust.

This is Kaufman’s first feature in seven years, a follow-up to Synecdoche, New York, which inexplicably got mixed critical reaction and unfortunately proved to be a commercial failure.

Why did it take a genius like him so long to make another movie? Did he go through a similar creative block that his protagonist suffered in Adaptation, his 2002 film?

No matter. There are several reasons to celebrate this picture, which officially received its world premiere in Telluride Fest, just days before Venice. First, the film was financed by the crowd-funding site Kickstarter, which should elevate the profile of this relatively new strategy. For Kaufman, the experience was satisfying for one main reason: “We did it on our own terms, outside any studio or system. We had no one to answer to except ourselves.”

Second, it’s a stop-motion animation for thinking adults, the sort of mature entertainment that merits R-rating (beware, there are explicit sex scenes between puppets and some raunchy lines). The tale is set in 2005, just before the new social media invaded and forever changed our lives. Anomalisa addresses some universal issues, such as what makes us human? Is love possible in an increasingly complex, impersonal and technologically-determined culture? What’s the price of feeling alienated or disconnected from society?

Michael Stone, the tale’s hero (or anti-hero), a renowned inspirational speaker who has penned a popular book about customer service, is flying from L.A. to Cincinnati for a single engagement. Upon arrival, he goes to his hotel, orders room service, and meets various women, each more eccentric than the other, especially Lisa, a charming telesales agent. Though he is married and has a boy, Stone does not derive much joy or pleasure from his family. He therefore embraces a chance encounter in the hotel with Lisa, a femme that briefly makes him feel like he has found a cure to his anhedonia. (By the way, Anhedonia was the original title for Woody Allen’s 1977 Oscar-winning comedy, Annie Hall).

The voices that Kaufman chose for his characters are all unusual, as you would expect. Michael is voiced by British actor David Thewlis (still best known for Naked), and Lisa by the iconic Jennifer Jason Leigh. The third voice belongs to Tom Noonan, who plays all the other roles, including Michael’s wife, his son, the bar staff, a cab driver, even a sex-shop worker. A strong point is made about banality: except for the central couple, all the others look and sound the same-just like us.

Citizens of Cincinnati might resent the fact that they are portrayed as dull and boring, but this particular place is meant to stand in for any American city that’s faceless and anonymous. The world that Kaufman constructs is rather normal and ordinary–dreary–which makes it easy for us to relate to, even empathize with. In our lonely and distancing world, love is not the norm, it’s the anomaly, hence the title, which combines the words anomaly and Lisa.


Though greeted with positive critical response, the movie was a commercial flop when released by Paramount, earning close to $6 million at the box-office, which did not even recoup its production budget of $8 million.


Directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson

Produced by Rosa Tran, Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman, Dino Stamatopoulos

Screenplay by Charlie Kaufman, based on Anomalisa by Francis Fregoli
Music by Carter Burwell
Cinematography Joe Passarelli
Edited by Garret Elkins

Production company: HanWay Films, Starburns Industries, Snoot Films

Distributed by Paramount Pictures

Release date: September 4, 2015 (Telluride Film Fest); December 30, 2015 (US)

Running time: 90 minutes