How good can a puppet movie with an R rating for sexual content and graphic nudity be?
Really, really good. Good enough to be the best animated (and possibly best all-around) movie of the year. Charlie Kaufman’s (“Synecdoche, New York”) latest follows apathetic self help author Michael Stone (David Thewlis “Macbeth”) through a daylong visit to Cincinnati, Ohio. But Kaufman cracks through this simple plot to ask (and not answer) some of the world’s most impossible and important questions. Unlike previous Kaufman films, “Anomalisa” isn’t a maze or a puzzle. Its plot can be summarized on a line rather than a page. By keeping his narrative taut, Kaufman allows himself to create a world full of stunning visuals (remember, everything is puppet sized!) and complex characters.
“Anomalisa” didn’t need to be a puppet movie, but it succeeds because it is one. The oddities and tragedies of human behavior are magnified when acted out by 3D-printed puppets. There is no conflation of actor and character because there isn’t any acting. So in a way, “Anomalisa” becomes more human. But, it doesn’t want its audience to confuse the puppets for humans, leaving seams across the cheeks and hairlines. Part of Michael’s face even falls off at one point, revealing its mechanical interior.
After a failed reunion with an old flame, Michael meets Lisa, brought to life by the glowing voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh (“The Hateful Eight”). Lisa is the anomaly after which the film is named. And she is the only character besides Michael not voiced by Tom Noonan (“Manhunter”), so when she appears on the screen, giggling nervously in a hotel bathrobe, the audience sees and hears her as Michael does — a refreshing burst of novelty and originality.
The pair end up in Michael’s room and before the infamous puppet sex scene, Lisa, at Michael’s request, sings “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” It’s one of the most beautiful moments in the entire film. It’s one of the most beautiful moments in any film. I never thought a puppet singing Cyndi Lauper would make me cry, but the scene is “Anomalisa” at its rawest — it’s the simplicity of having a favorite song and the odd honesty of singing it to someone you barely know.
Then there’s puppet sex. And it’s uncomfortable. But it’s also honest. Michael and Lisa fumble awkwardly with each other, each action made deliberate by their insecurities and the worry that this could be their last (and maybe even only) chance to “get it right.” The scene — like the whole film — is heavy, but not so heavy that it isn’t funny. Kaufman manages to find humor within the tragedy of banality and urgency of middle age. “Anomalisa” is heartbreaking, but to have your heart broken by a movie like this is its own kind of pleasure.
During the film’s climatic scene Michael asks a room full of puppets, “What is it to be human?” Yes, there’s some irony there, but there’s also a whole lot of honesty. Because, ultimately, “Anomalisa” is the best thing any piece of art can strive to be: honest.