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Existential romance "Anomalisa" asks, man or puppet?

Depression can take the form of going through motions like an unfeeling automaton, virtually checked out of life. Near the outset of Charlie Kaufman's "Anomalisa," the protagonist checks in to a Cincinnati hotel that just might hold the key to his salvation -- if he can overcome his ennui.

One of cinema's most uncompromising artists, Kaufman made his name with the head-trippy screenplays for "Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation," and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." In adapting his play "Anomalisa" for the screen, Kaufman shares directing credit with animator Duke Johnson. They have crafted this dramedy in mesmerizing stop-motion puppet animation that challenges conventions of subject matter and style for big-screen animated features.

The film's "hero" is Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a married-with-kids motivational speaker who travels from city to city to deliver customer-service advice. As per the archetype of advice peddlers, this one badly needs some guidance of his own in escaping his dispiriting rut.

Restlessness leads Michael to consider enlisting an extramarital bedmate, and he finds a candidate in Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), one of a pair of groupies impressed by Michael's work. Lisa, too, vibes loneliness and a longing for happiness, which she expresses through a humble, tender a cappella rendition of "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." Kaufman's intentions prove similarly humble, as noted in the cautionary line "Sometimes there's no lesson -- that's a lesson in itself." The film, then, avoids unironic motivational lecture and offers a deadpan-funny slice-of-despairing life.

That said, Kaufman and Johnson score thematic points on the natures of depression and desire. The puppets are as much message as medium, particularly in a reverie that finds Michael going to pieces in a mirror. And, albeit counterintuitively, the silicone figures give us the healthy distance to allow an anthropological self-study.

The hotel where Michael stays, the Fregoli, alludes to the Fregoli delusion, a rare neuropsychiatric syndrome by which paranoid sufferers mistakenly believe that different people are a single person; indeed, every character Michael meets, male and female, apart from the singular Lisa (an anomaly, hence the title's "anoma"Lisa), shares the same facial features and speaks with the voice of actor Tom Noonan.

This gambit serves as a source of humor as well as a neat expression of the great grayness of depression, only broken through by the colorful, extraordinary individual who becomes a candidate for friendship or romance. There's humor, too, in Seinfeldian absurdities (shopping for a child's gift in a sex-toy shop), conversational crossed wires, and everyday fumblings, from the hotel shower to sex acts. The brilliant vocal performances employ subtle sensitivity to enable the laughs and even a wee bit of sympathy for Michael despite being yet another midlife-crisis white guy on the big screen. "Anomalisa" may have no lesson to push, but it's undeniably an artful rendering of the post-millennial man adrift, in search of any port than the one he's made for himself.

Rated R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity and language. One hour, 30 minutes.

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