Michael Stone is a motivational speaker and author of best selling customer-service bible “How May I Help You Help Them?”. Flying into Cincinnati from his Los Angeles home to make a conference keynote speech, Michael is beset by demons, depressed and feeling entirely alone. Until he meets Lisa.
In Michael’s world, everyone looks alike and sounds alike. People may be different sexes, wear different clothes and have different names, but all sport the same face and tones. As Michael checks into his hotel, the Fregoli, he contemplates leaving his wife and reminisces on lost love Bella from over a decade ago. Bella lives in Cincinnati and it’s not long before they’re sharing a drink in the hotel bar. To Michael, Bella also looks and sounds exactly like everyone else but it doesn’t matter; his sadness and desperation soon scares her off into the night. Returning to his room, he hears and immediately falls for a voice different to anyone he’s ever heard. This is Lisa and soon the couple are in bed, in a doomed before it’s even started proto-relationship and, they tell themselves, in love.
To begin to understand Anomalisa, one needs to know what Fregoli, the name of Michael’s hotel and a word that crops up a lot, means. The ‘Fregoli Delusion’ is a disorder in which sufferers believe that different people are in fact a single person who changes appearance. And thus we have Michael. David Thewlis voices our completely disillusioned, utterly unmotivated motivational speaker and Jennifer Jason Leigh is Lisa. All other characters, every single one of them, are played by Tom Noonan. It’s extremely disconcerting, but we’re meant to experience exactly what Michael is feeling. As he lives through a nightmare reality in the hotel’s basement, it looks like we’re heading into some serious Kaufmanesque weirdness, but then it’s revealed to be an actual nightmare and we’re straight back to Michael’s hotel room and the vulnerable Lisa.
To say Anomalisa is a technical achievement is an understatement. The level of detail in everything is simply incredible and the human-like visages of the puppets all-too real, with only the visible lines where the various model facial pieces meet a constant reminder of what you’re watching. As a piece of film making and a work of art, it couldn’t be more successful. And yet it’s a very hard movie to actually like. Michael is not just an unpleasant lead, he’s downright creepy. Coming across as something like the psychotically deranged cousin of George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham from Up In The Air, we feel actively worried for Lisa’s safety. The microscopic recreation of the little human nuances translated into stop-motion puppets makes you marvel at how they actually made it but once past that, all that’s left is a cold, detached and ultimately unfulfilling ninety minutes. With full frontal nudity, oral sex and masturbation, as performed by puppets. A Charlie Kaufman film.