A version of this review was published at the Film Experience

The big problem I have with Anomalisa is extravagantly petty, but also fundamental: see, there's a character named Lisa. And she is, as a matter of fact, anomalous within the film's world. That's the kind of trite, gimmicky pun that one might patronisingly smile at if it was attached to a film student's senior project, but as the title of a long-gestating film by a much-admired screenwriter auteur, it's... actually, there's a straight line between here and Synecdoche, New York, though at least that one never showed up in the film's dialogue.

The big strength of the film, anyway, outweighs it: Anomalisa is the most prominent, prestigious animated feature made in the U.S. for an exclusively adult audience in ages and ages. Since Fritz the Cat, probably; you could even argue "of all time", if you want to discount Fritz as being an underground production that managed to bubble its way up to mass consciousness. The film is the brainchild of Charlie Kaufman, who initially wrote it as an audio-driven stageplay performed by the same cast as the movie; he turned it into a stop-motion feature with the help of co-director Duke Johnson, a veteran of the dark Adult Swim satire Moral Orel. Oddly, it's perhaps the least outré film of Kaufman's career - which, just to recap, includes the fantasies Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and the rambling metacommentary of Adaptation. - despite being animated; or maybe it's exactly the dirty trick of the movie that Kaufman's most ruthlessly realistic story ever would also be the one that is the least objectively "real" of all of them.

That story centers on Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a melancholy author traveling to Cincinnati to give the keynote speech at a conference for customer service representatives, a sector that considers him something of a living god on the strength of his book How May I Help You Help Them? Michael is not a happy man, a fact omnipresent in every facet of the film: Thewlis's perfectly drained line deliveries, evoking the sound of a man who could do with a good cry and is too tired even fore that; the painfully bland color palette of the film, courtesy of designers John Joyce and Huy Vu; and the universal anonymity of every human Michael comes into contact with, all of them voiced by Tom Noonan - men, women, and children. This last gimmick is both the film's most feisty stylistic touch and its most impressively unconventional gesture, and the shading Noonan gives to the whole universe of characters is the year's most unexpected great performance.

All of this adds up to Michael being awfully tired of life, and right about midway through the brisk 90-minute film comes his possible answer: Lisa, voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh in a tremendously energetic and cringingly awkward performance that's utterly without fear in painting her friendly, pleasant character as rather banal and not very bright. Michael doesn't see it that way: she's the first person he's encountered since God knows when who challenges or surprises him in any way, and after clumsily asking her to sleep with him, he's ready to leave his wife and child to start a new life with her. Meanwhile, the audience waits for the other shoe to drop: Kaufman, a keen chronicler of the anomie of depression, would never spin a tale where a sad-sack man is cured of his depression by the love of a Manic Pixie Dream Middle-Aged Woman, and nothing in the texture of Anomalisa suggests that he's interested in changing that.

I find Anomalisa enormously admirable: it's the first mainstream animated film in America in just ages that aggressively tries to re-orient our expectations of what kind of stories are "appropriate" for animation. And the approach it takes to animation is, itself, decidedly unconventional. The faces of the stop-motion puppets were created on 3-D printers, after the fashion of Laika's ParaNorman, lending them an uncanny realism; the same goes for the saggy, floppy bodies of those puppets when we see them in the nude. As we do at some length; besides giving Michael a pathetically farcical shower scene, Anomalisa gives us the most thoughtfully naturalistic sex scene I have ever seen animated, one so attuned to the movements and sounds of sex that it's striking and disorienting because that kind of sensitivity about sex is rare in movies, not because it's a depiction of doll cunnilingus.

These hyper-real puppets, meanwhile, have been assembled with deliberate artlessness: the seams in the component parts of the face are left to stand, giving every character the impression of wearing a plastic mask (this is used to extremely good effect in a nightmare sequence that is the most overtly Kaufmanesque moment in the film). The tension between this insistent reminder that we're always only looking at maquettes being manipulated by hand, and the insistent realism of every other aspect of the design and cinematography provides a steady source of discord that Anomalisa thrives on: it is, when we come right down to it, a depiction of soul-consuming depression, the kind that makes it feel not just impossible but undesirable to bother connecting with any other human beings. Presenting a world that's both totally real and obviously constructed is a hell of a way to explore that feeling.

I don't love it. "Admirable" is, well, admirable, but try though I might, I've been having an intensely difficult time summoning up any real enthusiasm for Anomalisa as an experience beyond its proficiency as an intellectual exercise. And bear in mind, I didn't like Synecdoche, New York even that much: I found it to be so calculated in its rejection of joy that it become more enervating to watch than remotely enlightening. So your mileage may vary, if you're one of that film's passionate fans. At least Anomalisa has more of a sense of comedy than Synecdoche ever wanted to, but it ends up coming down to the same basic problem: this is a story about a man so consumed by self-negation that there's really nothing left about him that's terribly interesting or appealing, and we're left with very little reason to desire spending time in his presence.

Anomalisa even goes further in that direction than Kaufman's last film, since the movie presents such a drab, mordant sexual relationship as it its most tender human moment. What it does not do is to side with Michael in viewing Lisa as his savior, thank God; the film realises that Michael is just being a deeply pathetic middle-aged white guy in thinking he can patch himself up with the help of an extra-marital fling, though in order to prove that realises this, it has to make sure that we get that Lisa is frankly not very interesting or distinctive. Which, Leigh's fireworks show of a vocal performance notwithstanding, means that we're stuck with a two-hander in which one of the hands is unlikable and skeevy and the other hand is basically a dolt with no real life of her own.

It's kind of a suffocating view of humanity, I'm saying, and not one with terribly new insights into middle-aged male behavior (there have been a lot of Michaels in the movies over the years), though it has an impressively creative way of re-packaging those insights. In other words, the animation is really damned exciting and I think anyone with the smallest interest in the possibilities of stop-motion storytelling should consider this 100% essential viewing, but this is just a beleaguered tale of life in a crappy world. There simply isn't very much there there, and what there is is frankly so pessimistic as to be of limited utility.