Charlie Kaufman is a screenwriter known for his quirks, idiosyncrasies, and eccentricities, having produced some of the most talked about films of modern cinema, including Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He also wrote and directed Synecdoche, New York. Anomalisa is his latest work, which began as a play, written in 2005, and has become a rich, beautifully texture, and typically Kaufman film made using stop motion puppets, and co-directed by Duke Johnson.
Michael Stone (voice by David Thewlis) is a self-help author who is flying into Cincinnati to speak at a customer service convention. Middle-aged, Michael is in the midst of a mid-life depression of some kind. He is distant and disconnected from the world around him. Worse, everyone looks and sounds the same (voiced by Tom Noonan). His trip to Cincinnati affords him the chance to reconnect with an ex, Bella, who he broke up with under poor circumstances years ago. Their meeting does not go as he had planned, and later returns to his room, only to hear out in the hallway a unique and distinct voice. He races out and knocks on doors until he finds Lisa (voice by Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is in town for the convention with her friend. Lisa, a very shy and reserved person, and Michael soon spark a connection between them as she is coaxed out of her shell and he finds joy in her distinct voice and face.
Michael’s situation is classic Kaufman, a unique way of conveying a something that feels personal yet universal. Michael is having what seems to be an existential crisis. While we may not all experience that, we all have moments where everything about life seems bland and generic and mundane. It can be as simple as being uninspired by the choices of music at your disposal on your phone. There is the routine nature of day to day living, where before you know it every day can seem to blend together and nothing changes, and you get used to it and then your life becomes routine. It’s easy to see monotony in the everyday and then be inspired to action when something stands out and catches our attention.
This is perfectly illustrated here by everybody that Michael comes into contact with having the same generic face and having the same general voice. Tom Noonan’s slightly depressing drawl is also a perfect fit for voicing this sameness that pervades everything around Michael. And it makes Lisa stand out even more when she comes into Michael’s life because the audience is hearing a fresh, new voice just as Michael is.
It’s also enhanced by the decision to make this film using stop motion. The conceit of this play put to screen just would not be as effective if Noonan not only voiced but appeared as all of the surrounding characters. All of the ancillary characters surrounding Michael and then also Lisa have the exact same facial features. The uniformity comes across much more effectively with puppets. And the puppets are amazingly life-like in their appearance. They are anatomically correct, which results in an almost uncomfortably real sex scene that ups the ante from what was in Team America: World Police because it is so realistic and graphic.
The only thing that really distinguishes them as puppets are a few lines and creases on and around the face, which almost makes them look like androids. Kaufman and Johnson make good use of the puppet motif to create a few nightmare sequences involving Michael and his paranoia and the nature of puppets.
The relationship the develops between Michael and Lisa is surprisingly tender and unflinchingly normal, almost purposefully un-cinematic. They have normal conversations and talk about their lives, opening up to each other in ways that they are normally uncomfortable doing with others. In fact, one of the best moments of the film occurs when Michael asks Lisa to sing for him, something she really only does when she is alone, but Michael manages to coax her into doing it because he is so taken by the sound of her voice. What starts out as a meek acapella rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” turns into a real treat as she starts to really belt it out when she gets into it. It’s a moment that is as intimate and tender as the sex scene later on.
In a lot of ways, though, Anomalisa can be seen as a cautionary tale. Michael recognizes that there is something wrong with him, and despite the arrival of this unexpected anomaly (Lisa, hence Anoma-Lisa), he seems unable to do anything to reverse its impact on his life. I think there is a several strong lessons to be learned here, including not allowing your life to be swallowed up by the mundane. There are perhaps threads here about celebrity/success numbing people to the world around them, illustrated in an absurd manner as Michael is somewhat of a minor celebrity best-selling author at a customer service convention that Lisa and her friend could possibly be classified as groupie wannabes. You could argue that Michael is also so wrapped up in himself and in his own head, causing everything around him to seem mundane to him. Most importantly, I think, is what the movie is saying about the inherent danger in making someone or something a central object of desire, and how anything that is put on a pedestal is almost certain to let us down sooner or later, which can lead to disillusionment.
Anomalisa is full of your typical Kaufman touches. Kaufman is a writer who runs hot and cold for me, personally, and his particular brand of eccentricity sometimes rubs me the wrong way, similar to someone like Woody Allen and the neuroses he saddles his characters with are as often a turnoff for me as they are interesting. With Anomalisa, though, there is a pretty good balance, as the puppetry and the people Kaufman is working with help distill the eccentricity into a digestible amount. Despite the dreariness of Michael’s situation, there is a considerable amount of warmth to this film. It also helps that it looks amazing as well, and how life-like the puppets look. It’s a short film (barely 90 minutes, credits included), but there’s quite a bit that is charming, challenging, and rewarding to unpack here about everyday human existence.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars