By Tom Meek
The film is a stop motion-animation journey into the psyche of a self-centered motivational speaker who may or may not suffer from some form of psychosis. It’s slow moving and mundane yet profoundly unearthly as it plumbs the human condition and the eternal quest for fulfillment.
The project, which Kaufman originally conceived as a sound play (think a podcast or radio) for composer Carter Burwell and the Coen Brothers, came to life via a Kickstarter campaign and a partnership with stop-motion animator Duke Johnson, a man with such credits as Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole on his CV.
The rendering of place and people — the puppets were made in part from a 3-D printer — are astonishing in the degree of detail and craftsmanship, especially the miniature sets which are limited to the inside of a hotel, an airplane, a cab, and a dildo bodega. The overall effect becomes a stirringly piquant amalgam that’s something like The Polar Express meets Team America: World Police.
The cast too is limited — there are just three performers. David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh voice the two leads, while character actor Tom Noonan speaks for everyone else — women, men, and children. It’s a strange olio shoehorned into a rather regular tread as Michael Stone (Thewlis), a customer service expert, British ex-pat, and something of a minor celeb (author ofHow May I Help You Help Them?), flies into Cincinnati to give one of his speeches at a convention. Everything is a bit off as Michael lands. The male singers behind the choral music on his iPod are horribly out of sync. Everyone speaks with the same voice (Noonan’s) and has the same general facial profile regardless of age, gender, or physical size. And when he gets in a cab desperate for a cigarette, there’s a no smoking sign because the driver is asthmatic.
Everything moves in small, sleepy slices like that, but the film is rife with tension, mostly between Michael’s ears. The name of the hotel that Michael checks into, the Al Fregoli is a tell, and early on we learn Michael has an angry ex-lover, a wife, and child back home in L.A. he’s detached from, and a high opinion of himself. Besides observing a man masturbating in an office across the way and an ill-advised drink with an old flame, nothing really extraordinary happens in Cincinnati. But then Michael meets Lisa (Leigh). Continue reading