One of the last major 2015 releases to find its way to Seattle Screens opens this week at the Guild 45th (we still have 45 Years, Arabian Nights, In the Shadow of Women and Knight of Cups to come over the next several weeks), with the release of the latest film from Hollywood’s favorite self-loathing narrative-tangler, Charlie Kaufman. Teamed with co-director Duke Johnson and producers Dino Stamatopolous and Dan Harmon (among others), Kaufman has adapted his own play into a stop-motion animated film about a man (voiced by David Thewlis) who travels to Cincinnati for a conference. Lonely and depressive, he first tries to reconnect with an old flame, then finds himself attracted to a woman in the hotel. She catches his ear (and eye, eventually) because, unlike everyone else (besides him) in his world, she doesn’t look like Michael Ian Black and she doesn’t talk like Tom Noonan: she’s the voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh. A touching night of human (well, puppet) connection is followed by some explicit puppet sex, followed by a nightmare and then a nightmarish world. Like all of Kaufman’s films (both as a director and a screenwriter) it’s an uneasy mix of weird humor and sadness, and like all of them Kaufman refuses to give us the happy ending.
Kaufman is a filmmaker of depression, of what it feels like to be miserable and alone, but he’s far too gifted to make purely miserablist films. Thus his films shift queasily between moments of sublimely weird black humor and a desperate longing for connection. It almost never works: the misanthropy and loathing overwhelm the generosity of the humor and the films come off as mopey and self-obsessed, as wallowing. And the mix is even starker here. Funded in part by Kickstarter donations, the film is an 80 minute expansion of a 40 minute story, and it really only feels like there’s 20 minutes of drama here, a single joke about the universal sameness depression can cause, padded out with dirty puppet jokes. The opening scenes, by design painfully mundane, are stretched beyond all reason (admirably so), such that we truly feel the man’s joy when he finally hears a new voice. The pace is slow but felt, whereas the puppet sex, testing the bounds of the uncanny valley, is too ridiculous to be taken seriously and too serious to be funny. The film’s final third, locking the man in, like all Kaufman’s heroes, a prison of his own making, is harrowing and deeply sad, but can’t be trusted.There’s always a sense with Kaufman that we are being played, that the world has been designed to make us as miserable as the hero, that Kaufman himself doesn’t really believe in misery, that he doesn’t hate himself as much as he wants us to think he does. Maybe that’s because it’s that feeling of depression that he’s most interested in, that he’s a poet of our darkest moods. But the self-aware humor that should be our lifeline out of that obsession is never quite enough because it isn’t the heroes that are self-aware, but Kaufman himself. His created worlds aren’t expansive and generous, they’re limited and cruel. The contradiction that keeps sending me back to Kaufman, despite my misgivings, is that though his heroes have no way out of their depression because their creator refuses to give them one, the simple fact is that that seems to me to be the nature of depression. I don’t think Kaufman is honest, but I’m pretty sure he’s truthful.