Strange, sad and unusual, this film is the first animation by Charlie Kaufman, a man who frequently plumbs the depths of the human psyche in odd ways, and makes us question who we are and what it all means, in diverse films such as Being John Malkovich, Adaptation or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
The film is a stop-motion animation in which a married middle-aged author named Michael Stone, who writes guide books about customer service, is on a trip to Cincinnati to give a talk. He’s a sad man, very beige, and is clearly bored by everything and everyone, searching for some kind of meaning in his life. At his hotel he meets Lisa, a fan of his books, who is painfully low on self esteem, frequently telling herself to shut up or calling herself stupid.
While Michael and Lisa are voiced by David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh respectively, all the other characters are voiced by Tom Noonan. It feels wonderfully uncomfortable when his voice comes out of everyone who Michael comes across, and adds to the feeling that Michael is the only person who is real to him in his world, everyone is the same to him, from his wife to a taxi driver. Until he meets Lisa.
And her voice shines, full of feeling, character and colour. In this chance meeting, everything could change for Michael, and he engages himself with Lisa, begging her for more words, drawing her out. Hoping to keep feeling something, hoping to save himself. Although the rather explicit sex scene has become one of the talking points of the film, to focus on it would be to lose sight of the story. The film is about the way that Michael moves through the world, his lack of feeling and ability to engage with people, even though he’s a man who makes a living out of selling customer service, the importance of engagement.
His isolation and desperation is what drives him, but we get the sense that he feels as though he is better than everyone. A bit more real than them. He’s middle aged, desperate, and bored beyond belief. He’s also not a very nice person, though he wouldn’t know it. Through his relationship with Lisa, who has the opposite view of herself, it seems that he might have brought something out in her, and may be able to bring that out in himself too.
It’s an interesting and unusual film, and it makes you ask a lot of questions, which is classic Charlie Kaufman.
EXTRAS: A Q&A with directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson and producer Rosa Tran (25:38), which was conducted at the Curzon cinema in Soho, London, in March 2016; 13 short behind-the-scenes featurettes (11:42) that really should have been stitched into one; the theatrical trailer (1:50); and a behind-the-scenes picture gallery.