Puppets and paranoia

Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) and Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) are the only characters in Anomalisa with their own identities.
Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) and Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) are the only characters in Anomalisa with their own identities.PHOTO: UIP

Acclaimed writer-director Charlie Kaufman uses puppets to explore familiar themes of nature of reality



90 minutes/Now showing/ 3.5 stars

The story: Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), an expert on customer service, is in Cincinnati to speak at a conference. He fears he is losing his mind - everyone around him has the same face and voice (voiced by Tom Noonan). By chance, he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a woman with a physical identity of her own.

This work of stop-motion puppetry began life as a voice-only stage performance some years ago. Through a Kickstarter campaign, writer and co-director Charlie Kaufman (with animation expert Duke Johnson) has brought it to the screen.

It is also a work festooned with acclaim, including wins at the Venice Film Festival and a nomination for Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards.

This is Kaufman's first stab at an all-animated feature, but his themes - some would say obsessions - remain the same. From his first screenplay, for 1999's Being John Malkovich, to Adaptation (2002) and Synecdoche, New York (2008), his thoughts have been with the nature of reality. In particular, he is fascinated with the mutability of identity, in how the mirror we hold up to ourselves comes from a carnival fun-house.

By "we", Kaufman usually means "the artist", or more to the point, "Charlie Kaufman". When he is paired with a good director, that philosophical wrestling match results in mind-expanding comedy (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, 2004). When Kaufman's solipsism is presented without levity, the result feels an awful lot like intellectual posturing, dry and sour.

Anomalisa is not as good as Spotless Mind or Malkovich, both of which leaven Kaufman's angst with visual wit, thanks to directors Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze, respectively.

However, it is superior to Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind (2002) and Synecdoche, New York, because it feels more vulnerable and human than either of those films, an odd thing to say about a work acted by puppets.

Kaufman's protagonist, as always, is a man trapped in a world where reality has shifted sideways, but which he has come to accept as normal.

The story is experienced through Michael's eyes and ears, which sense that everyone, even his wife and son, look and sound the same. In one of several ironies, Michael (Thewlis, giving a fine, properly world-weary performance) is an expert in customer service. It is a job based on the idea that each human must be treated like an individual.

There is more existential horror bubbling beneath the surface of things, as Michael discovers over the film's compact 90 minutes. He is hallucinating, gripped by a peculiar type of paranoia. But as Kaufman is fond of saying, mental illness is a pathway to a higher truth.

The story makes a more specific point about how love is just another expression of narcissism, but that paradox, like others touched on here, lacks the absurdist bite of Kaufman's best work.

•Anomalisa is screening at two locations: The Projector at Golden Mile Tower in Beach Road and Cathay Cineleisure Orchard.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 19, 2016, with the headline 'Puppets and paranoia'. Print Edition | Subscribe