Directors: Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson
Voices of: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh
4 (out of 5) Globes
Charlie Kaufman movies used to be funny. They still are, kind of. Before breaking through with “Being John Malkovich” — which instantly made him a screenwriter-as-brand, his name becoming an adjective a la “Kafkaesque” — he wrote on the staffs of programs like “Get a Life” and “The Dana Carvey Show.” The movies made from his ostentatiously clever screenplays, including “Adaptation” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” were funny too, even as they plunged into brutal honesty and depressive headspaces.
The two films Kaufman has directed himself are full-on, no-joke depressive. That’s not to say there are no jokes in “Synecdoche, New York” and his latest, “Anomalisa” (co-directed with Duke Johnson), though they’re funny only occasionally, as if he simply couldn’t resist a gag. But both are deep stews in one person’s overwhelming and suffocating misery, using high-concept gimmicks to trap us inside crushing solipsism. They’re not themselves egocentric, though. “Synecdoche” is a critique of self-absorption; “Anomalisa” is an emotional plea, beckoning us to find pity for a tragic figure who can’t get outside of himself.
The gimmick in “Anomalisa” is not just that everyone’s a puppet; it’s that to its semi-hero — beloved motivational speaker Michael Stone — everyone is so boring to him that they all speak with the same voice. Michael is voiced by David Thewlis; everyone else gets Tom Noonan. Holing up for some hotel room drinking during a Cincinnati conference, he wanders lonely through life — until he suddenly and mysteriously hears a unique voice among the Noonan din. She’s Lisa, and she boasts the voicework of Jennifer Jason Leigh. But she’s not on-her-face special; she’s painfully ordinary — an insecure wallflower who can’t believe it when a small-time celebrity is macking on her.