Greetings again from the darkness. Seeing Charlie Kaufman’s work described as “strange”, “weird” or “bizarre” makes me cringe a little because most of his films hit my sweet spot of curiosity, insight and expression. I easily relate to his creative vision and commentary in films like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Synecdoche, New York. His characters are always searching for something and trying to discern the meaning of life … or at least of their own life. This latest has Kaufman adapting his own stage production, and collaborating with co-director Duke Johnson for what is likely (for the vast majority of us) our most startling existential stop-action animated puppet cinematic experience.
The unusual opening of the film is a black screen with only background noise and voices, and the first chuckle occurred within about a minute thanks to one of my favorite cultural references of the year: “Kojak, not Kolchak”. Slowly the screen evolves to show clouds in the sky, and soon an airplane appears and our first peek at Michael occurs … he’s a passenger on a flight. The vast majority of the rest of the film takes place inside the Fregoli Hotel – aptly named because Michael seems to suffer from a twist on Fregoli Delusion (a person believes those around him are all the same person in disguise).
We soon notice that Michael appears beaten down, even exasperated with life. He is an author in town to give a presentation on his specialty … Customer Service. The story continues along familiar lines of a business traveler in the midst of a mid-life crisis, until things change for him when he stumbles on a couple of his fans who are in town for his presentation. One of them is Lisa, whom Michael is attracted to thanks to her innocent energy and wonderful voice. What makes her voice so wonderful? Well, it turns out that Michael is voiced by British actor David Thewlis, Lisa is voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh, and EVERY other character in the film (male or female) is voiced by Tom Noonan. Lisa and her voice are the anomaly that makes up the film’s title … Michael is smitten with her because her voice is not like all the others – providing a spark of hope.
Mr. Kaufman seems intent on making us realize how easily we can slip into a rut and simply go through the motions in life … every day and every person being pretty much like the rest. Michael has learned to wear his Customer Service mask – one who pretends to care about the issues of others. It’s a terrific metaphor for someone refusing to face the responsibility for their own happiness. His awakening occurs at the hands (and in bed) with Lisa. Yes, you should be prepared for the uncommon and slightly unsettling site of Puppet Private Parts. The clumsy passion of the first encounter between Michael and Lisa does wonders for each of them … restoring her self-esteem and awakening him from his daily slumber of hopelessness.
While the story itself is quite simple, the use of puppets prevents us from getting overly personal or judgmental with the characters, and forces us to deal with the emotional and mental aspects of what keeps so many from leading happy lives. Lisa’s acapella version of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” ignites the fuse in Michael, and just like that, both he and Lisa are jolted from their own self-imposed limitations. No longer able to just go through the motions, Michael’s overreactions at breakfast and during his presentation are all part of his re-awakening … the most profound puppet awakening since Pinocchio.
Perhaps Mr. Kaufman thought we might be more receptive to his message and observations if delivered by a non-threatening puppet, and perhaps he’s correct. The message is delivered loudly and clearly … though I will probably hear Tom Noonan’s voice in my nightmares. The look of the movie and the puppets is fantastic, and Carter Burwell provides yet another spot-on score.