(Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson, 2015)
Kaufman has the priceless ability to engage with his themes - usually some combination of love, isolation, fear of death, loneliness and depression - with the lightest of touches, concealed within his stories, which are accessible, funny and dramatic. He also seems equipped with a high concept generator: man discovers a tunnel into John Malkovich's mind? A service which can help cure heartbreak by wiping out all memories of a lover? An ongoing theatre project which replicates the banalities and profundities of a mans life?
Here the concept is part of the execution. David Thewlis voices Michael Stone, a bestselling motivational writer, whose book on customer service, "How Can I Help You Help Them?" has brought him to Cincinnati to speak at a conference. The character, like everybody else in the film, is played by a detailed stop-motion puppet. Everyone else he encounters - the taxi driver, speaking in platitudes about his city and its delights, the hotel concierge, the waitress in the bar, his ex-girlfriend, his wife and little boy - is voiced by Tom Noonan, varying his tone and pitch only fractionally throughout.
As a metaphor for Michael's isolation and solipsism, this works beautifully, and really pays off in a nightmare sequence in the third act. Michael is desperate for connection with another person, and is thrilled when he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a phone centre manager who has travelled to the conference just to hear him speak. They have quite a touching romance for one night, and then - well - how it goes captures the arc of most romantic relationships, and says some pointed things about expectations and the way individuality and selfishness affects such interactions.
It has that beautiful and distinctive Kaufman feeling; melancholy yet quietly hilarious, profound yet everyday. The details are where much of the humour lies, both in the character work, the background - the Fregoli hotel, where Michael and Lisa meet, is a nicely expressionist location - and Johnson's work with the puppets is lovely.
It finishes on a note halfway between sadness and realistic acceptance and feels somehow optimistic. No mean feat in a film with such sad ideas about life and love. But then that is the Charlie Kaufman effect.