Entrancingly sombre and creative; Charlie Kaufman is back but with stop-motion to add to his unique repertoire. It’s a wonderful new layer on top of a beautifully thoughtful story, which even though it isn’t his strongest, it becomes more engaging because of the way everything looks. As if an anomaly itself, this is a movie that deserves the praise and award nominations because it is such a distinct animated sensation.
Self help customer service guru Michael Stone (David Thewlis) is staying over at a Cincinnati hotel for one night before the next day’s book reading. However everyone sounds and appears the same to him, that is until he encounters Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who he falls for and wants to run away with.
I have been aching to see this film for ages, from the first time I saw the trailer and got captivated by how Kaufman it looked. As an added bonus it was stop-motion which is an art form I love and admire for the patience people have to make it happen. Thankfully I have now seen it and can say it was worth the wait. It’s a surreal watch at times with a squinted comic edge that works so well, as things fail around Michael you can’t help but laugh at the awkwardness or typical human elements of what’s happening.
One of the best qualities of this movie lies with the dialogue, for where the plot doesn’t go places the conversations and detail in Kaufman’s writing is smart and personal. There’s an assured vulnerability to both the main characters as they tangle into each other’s lives over one night. The way they talk to each other is full of insight and you end up looking past the puppetry animation and buy into Michael and Lisa as real and lonely people.
Duke Johnson who co-directed this film must be commended for his astonishing and somewhat eerie puppet designs that fill this feature. It’s even more fascinating to realise that these characters were 3D printed, which does give them this special look, with slitted marks defining their faces and making them identifiable to this film. On top of this, the puppet idea is taken a step further than ‘Team America: World Police’ as we see fellatio and sex happen between stop-motion figures in what could be the funniest yet sweetest scene this year.
Musically, this film is handed a lyrical and soft finesse by Carter Burwell who helps the movie sound effortless and hypnotizing, as if we too get lost among the hotel corridors and taken aback by the similar sounding civilians surrounding Michael. The nightmare sequence is both scored greatly and is a fantastic idea to play around with, though from Kaufman I wished it had have been real, manifesting the story a little more as Michael questions his own identity but that’s not his story! Also Leigh performing two versions of ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ is hilarious but poetic.
I can only say that the big fault for me was the plot, story-wise I was a bit saddened to not have something more unique. The visuals and dialogue were incredible but the narrative was a little ‘Lost in Translation’ and nothing else. It’s only one negative I could find because Kaufman usually comes up with something inventive whereas this was a more conventional love story, at least for Kaufman it’s more normal than you’d expect. That being said, the story of two people lost and finding hope to be short-lived is such a tragic and subtly dark tale which I like a lot.
David Thewlis voices Michael in such a British way, being klutzy yet smart in what he knows and how he approaches the vastly different Lisa. It’s pretty much the perfect voice for this puppet. Jennifer Jason Leigh brings innocent comic timing to her worrisome role as Lisa, which bounces off Michael Stone greatly. She’s shy, naive, goofy and comes alive thanks to Leigh’s magical vocals. Tom Noonan who voices everyone else, male or female brings a great one-tone level to his performance that makes all other characters spookily bland and unremarkable in the eyes of Michael.
It’s a very original animation that is crafted masterfully from the puppetry to the written word. Kaufman strikes again, making love a haunting special backdrop to despair into.