Sad, beautiful, the wittiest film of the year, "Anomalisa" takes place largely in a hotel room in Cincinnati, where a customer service expert (his well-regarded book: "How May I Help You Help Them?") has traveled from Los Angeles. He's delivering the keynote address at a regional customer service conference. Honestly, could the premise for a feature-length story of middle-aged malaise and inchoate yearning be any drabber?
Hardly. And yet directors Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman, working from a script Kaufman originally wrote and staged a decade ago, transform the comedy of quiet desperation into an occasion for serious pleasure.
If you have a problem with stop-motion animation, "Anomalisa" isn't your movie. Johnson, Kaufman and puppet supervisor Caroline Kastelic created one-sixth-scale models of all the characters and settings, on 18 separate warehouse mini-soundstages. We are there, spying on the action in various parts of the Al Fregoli hotel with Michael and his acquaintances. But "there" looks just strange enough to make "Anomalisa" a bracing expedition into parts unknown.
In disarmingly warm light, supported by composer Carter Burwell's inspired, empathetic string-based score (eight musicians, gorgeous results), we first see Michael on the plane into the city famous for its chili. Michael's a British transplant, somewhat at odds with L.A. and the parameters of his life, his wife, his son, himself. The character, based visually on co-director Johnson's ex-brother-in-law according to Johnson, is given the precisely right vocal inflections by David Thewlis. We learn in a tetchy phone call home, that Michael has trouble connecting. Who will help the man who helps the people who help the customers?
After checking in (the front desk clerk never breaks eye contact, even when he's typing), Michael calls up a bitter old flame, whose last letter still haunts him 11 years later, just as his unexplained bailing-out of the relationship haunts her. They meet in the lobby bar. The reunion goes … like it goes. Then Michael meets a couple of locals, in for the convention, plainly impressed and a little smitten with the guest speaker. One of the women is Lisa, voiced with a truly heartbreaking combination of sweetness and crippling insecurity by Jennifer Jason Leigh. What happens between Michael and Lisa, two contrasting and intersecting studies in insecurity and need, takes "Anomalisa" where it needs to go.
Kaufman's scripts for "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation" and others put him on a level most other writers never will reach. You can teach craft, but you can't teach ideas, or how to express moods and feelings in surprising, honest ways. The hotel name "Fregoli" contains a clue to Michael's psychic state. I Googled it: The Fregoli delusion refers to a paranoid belief that various people are actually the same person. Every puppet person in "Anomalisa" looks like a member of the same, vaguely anonymous extended family. Tom Noonan provides the voice for each and every supporting player, from hotel desk clerk to cabby to preteen female child. He's great; so is Carter's plaintive score, the best of the film year 2015.
Another few minutes wouldn't have hurt this remarkable achievement, especially near the end, when we'd like to dig a little deeper into Michael's circumstances post-Cincinnati. Kaufman's work, as always, finds its stealth energy in the sheer, anxious business of moving through the world and figuring out your heart's destination. Just when you think he might be going easy on his protagonist, there's a morning-after breakfast scene that marks Michael, who smokes and drinks steadily through the 90 minutes of "Anomalisa," as a man with a short fuse and a long list of petty grievances no matter who's in his orbit.
There's a sex scene here that is nothing like the puppet sex scene in "Team America: World Police," for the record. Does Michael learn anything from Lisa, who just wants to learn how to have fun and at one point sings "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" in a forlorn voice? He does, yes, though the life lessons are messy, contradictory and bittersweet. Kaufman's perspective, and the perspective of the animation design, is that of a world where virtually everyone is like everyone else. Now and then, however, you meet someone who, in the parlance of customer service surveys, exceeds expectations. "Anomalisa" certainly does. It's Chekhovian screwball, a perfect little tale of love (or thereabouts) in bloom among the weeds of an ordinary life. It feels like a classic already.
Phillips is a Chicago Tribune film critic.
MPAA rating: R (for strong sexual content, graphic nudity and language)
Running time: 1:30
Opens: Jan. 8