Nominated for Best Animated Feature, this film is written and co-directed by Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter behind fantasy or bizarre dramas like Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Both those films involve literally mind-bending premises. His movies tend to mess with the mental faculties of his characters. This film is no different.
Step one in messing with the mental faculty of Kaufman’s main character is making him and everyone else around him a puppet. Step two is making everyone else sound exactly the same, giving them the exact same voice, a male voice, even if that male voice is coming from female characters. Step three is then introduce one character, and only one, whose voice is different and unique, in fact feminine.
David Thewlis stars as Michael Stone, the focus of Kaufman’s mental attack. Jennifer Jason Leigh co-stars as Lisa Hesselman, the one character with the unique voice. Both have gathered at a hotel. Michael is giving a speech on customer relations having written a best-selling book about it and Lisa is a customer relations worker who is a fan and is there to listen.
The film is animated, stop-motion animation, using puppets or figurines to represent all the people. It’s not like the stop-motion or claymation of Aardman, or even the puppetry of Team America: World Police. We never see the strings. The cinematography adds a glow or haze to the scenes, giving it all a dream-like quality. It can never truly trick the eye into believing the characters are actually flesh-and-blood, the visual gags aside, but it does help to overcome the unreality that we’re watching basically Barbie dolls in action.
That being said, the unreality of it works toward Kaufman’s mind-bending themes. From almost the very beginning, Kaufman wants you to feel that there’s something off or off-kilter about this world he’s created. He does so with the voices. Besides Michael and Lisa, the voices of all the other characters are done by Tom Noonan, even all other female characters. Noonan voices Michael’s wife and Lisa’s female friend, as well as Michael’s ex-girlfriend, his son and the entire hotel staff.
I didn’t realize this at first, so when Michael is talking on the phone to someone with whom he’s involved, I assumed he was gay. All you see is Michael in his hotel room on the phone and the voice is a male voice. Later, a male character, the manager of the hotel, expresses his love for Michael. It’s not clarified if it’s romantic or a weird adoration, but Michael runs away from it, so any relationship between two male voices is dismissed.
The only relationship that is valued is the one between a male and female voice. Kaufman at first adopts a queer aesthetic and theme, giving male voices to female figures, treating it as normal. It could have been a metaphor for the transgender movement, which defined 2015 in many ways like with the coming out of Caitlyn Jenner. However, the film proceeds to undermine that by putting so much value in the hetero-normative match-up of voices.
This is not to take-away from the vocal performance of Jennifer Jason Leigh, which is very good. Some have criticized the way Leigh’s character is treated in The Hateful Eight, but I had more of a problem with how her character is treated here. Her character in general is shy and has low self-esteem, which isn’t bad in itself, but besides having a different voice and being so easy and pliable, I don’t get what the attraction is.
Kaufman’s script does give Lisa what could be called an extended monologue where we do get to know her. She seems to go along with Michael because he’s probably the first man in a long time to show her the kind of attention he does. It builds to the film’s centerpiece, a sex scene between the two puppets, which had care to make it feel real.
Yet, the filmmakers seem to do it for the novelty of it or to have a counter or more serious example of puppet sex, as opposed to what we got in Team America: World Police. Despite being animated, it’s ironically more realistic than most sex scenes in film and television, but after it was over, the narrative devolves and the brief moment of realism is lost forever, as Kaufman veers into the extreme, mind-bending lane.
Lisa ceases to be a person or a meaningful character. She instead becomes an idea to Kaufman to bandy around. Lisa becomes an idea or simply an object for Michael to run toward or pull along. Michael in one scene proclaims that he and Lisa are real, but the truth is she’s an abstraction as everything else. Where at once, she could have been something more solid, an actual person with her own opinions who experiences a sexual awakening, Kaufman reduces her to an abstraction by the end, but perhaps that was the point.
Rated R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity and language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 30 mins.
Currently playing in select cities, including The Charles Theater in Baltimore, Bow Tie Cinemas Harbour 9 in Annapolis, Ritz East in Philadelphia and Landmark’s E-Street Cinema in Washington, DC.