DIRECTED BY: ,
FEATURING: Voices of , , Tom Noonan
PLOT: A motivational speaker attending a business conference is dissatisfied with his humdrum existence, until he meets a seemingly average woman who, to him, is different than everyone else in his life.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While many of Charlie Kaufman’s films are shoo-ins for any list of weird movies, Anomalisa is comparatively straightforward. The weird factor is there, but limited, with most of the film focusing on small details of human interaction.
COMMENTS: Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) is a renowned expert in customer service, middle-aged and settled in, married with a young son, but his apparent career and familial success have not brought him happiness. He feels isolated from those around him, exemplified by their voices, which all sound the same. He reconnects with an old flame who lives in the city where he’s staying for a conference, but their meeting only leads to further estrangement. Michael’s hopelessness is finally lifted when he hears Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), a shy, self-conscious sales representative attending the conference. Her voice is distinct, and thus she is distinct, and he immediately falls for her simply for her difference. They spend the night together and Michael hopes to begin a new life with her, but their connection is not as solid as he thinks.
Animated in an incredibly detailed stop-motion style with 3D-printed figures, Anomalisa is a film that opens itself up gradually, reveling in small tics and awkward moments and everything left unsaid. Whether intentionally or inadvertently, Michael has cut himself off emotionally from everyone around him, keeping his headphones in as he walks through the airport, unwillingly engaging in small talk with his cab driver, and acting uncertain around the polite staff of his hotel. His few attempts at connection are somewhat awkward and ill-conceived, most noticeable in how he sputters his way through a drink with a former girlfriend, whom he left for no stated reason, who is still getting over the loss of him, and still questioning herself because of it. Though he seems rueful, Michael is unable to explain himself, and they leave one another disappointed. Later, he finds a “toy” store that’s open late, looking for a gift for his son but eventually realizing this shop has more adult fare. He ends up purchasing a mechanical Japanese doll shaped like a geisha, perhaps an unconscious stand-in for the multiple women he no longer loves, preferring a robotic replacement for their human inadequacies. That Michael’s professional life is centered around customer service expertise is a blatant irony, but that knowledge allows viewers to see how he must put on an act when he is with other people, much like the sales representatives he advises. He must play at being a warm, sociable human being, despite hating the sound of every voice he hears, even with his wife and son. With Lisa, he can stop acting, and reveals himself to be eager and loving, excited by possibility, and genuinely interested in learning everything he can about her. However, it is clear that his reasons are partially self-serving: he seeks an explanation for her uniqueness (her voice) and, when he can’t find it, he is content simply to hear her speak, about anything. He likely would have treated any person he considered different as he did Lisa, because that is ultimately what he is looking for: someone different, someone like him, an anomaly.
Kaufman has often focused on a male character who somehow found himself in isolation from others, typically related to their anxieties, creative drives, and reserved natures. Michael Stone fits in easily with the likes of Joel Barish, Caden Cotard, and of course, Adaptation’s Charlie Kaufman. However, his detachment is due to his warped conception of the world around him, which can be interpreted as self-imposed. In a literal reading of Anomalisa, Michael is living in a manufactured world where everything is made to revolve around him, and everyone he meets represents the one being whose obsession drives this world. Michael feels separate from everyone because he actually is the only distinct personality in existence. In a metaphorical reading, Michael is so self-centered that he has unconsciously created this difference, lumping everyone else into one category so that he alone is unique. He deludes himself into thinking he is so special that almost no one else appears to have a distinct identity, and the one person who does eventually proves to be one of “them” after he feels close to her. He is unhappy due to his inability to relate to other people, burdened with an unchecked narcissism that allows him to go through life without forming any deep or long-lasting relationships. Some may also view this a result of self-loathing, as he cannot allow people to get close to him for fear of an emotional connection actually forming.
As might be expected with Kaufman, the complexities of both premise and character run amok in Anomalisa, and there is much to unpack. He and co-director Duke Johnson communicate extreme loneliness and anxiety through animation so well-observed that it is easy to forget that these characters are not flesh and blood. The sets are fastidiously decorated, while still allowing for moments of surreal visual humor and experimentation. The “reveal” in the final act is perfectly tuned to the animation style used throughout, showing a careful, subtle eye. And yes, it does get weird. But for the most part it just gets sad, and nihilistic, exploring mid-life crisis in ways both poetic and infuriating. Perhaps most interestingly, the film features the most beautiful, gut-wrenching rendition of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” you or anyone is ever likely to hear, in a remarkably naked, undeniably human moment that reveals the intense longing felt throughout the story—a longing never satisfied.
G. Smalley adds: Just as Synecdoche, New York was partly inspired by the rare neurological condition Cotard’s syndrome, Anomalisa is inspired by Fregoli syndrome, a rare neurological condition that causes the sufferer to believe that different people are actually the same person (note the name of the hotel where the action occurs). As with Synecdoche, Kaufman doesn’t merely depict the way the world looks to someone suffering from a psychological aberration—although the movie does do that—but uses it instead as a metaphor for the human condition.
The source of Michael’s malaise is left undisclosed. Why did he leave his first girlfriend, and why does he spontaneously try to reconnect with her? He can’t explain it. I can’t explain it either. The script doesn’t explain it. Why does he connect with dowdy Lisa, rather than her attractive friend? The movie takes pains to paint Lisa as ordinary and plain specifically to suggest that Michael’s attraction to her is not mere infatuation. It is an anomaly. I believe that the movie’s scary thesis is that love itself is an anomaly, a random (and temporary) deviation from our natural state of loneliness and isolation. It’s one of the film’s biggest strengths that Michael’s character is susceptible to both critical and sympathetic readings, at the same time. Alex (and others) view Anomalisa as a (at least partly) critical exposé of Michael’s narcissism, but I find him much more sympathetic. He has feet of clay, but then, we all do. No one would willingly choose to suffer his hellish condition if they knew how to fix it. Perhaps it’s because I’m a male (and only a few years younger than Michael) that I found his plight heartrending.
For those wondering, beyond the essential weirdness of the premise—the fact that this frequently mundane drama is performed by stop-motion animated characters with visible seams in their heads who speak with the exact same monotone voice—there are other absurd, Kaufmanesque touches that pop up in dream sequences. There is also a sex scene that is one of the most believably realized in modern film—full of fumbling, bumps, and “I don’t like that”‘s. Despite its authenticity, the scene is uncomfortable to watch. There’s something inherently disturbing about puppet cunnilingus. I concur with Alex’s judgment that this film is not an appropriate choice to make the List, although it’s a close call, and persuasive commenters may be able to sway that judgment. I’ve left it as a “recommended” film, but it is also on the borderline of being a “must see.” I encourage you to seek it out when it receives a wider release in January 2016. It’s one of the best and most original films of 2015, and likely will be one of the best of 2016, too.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…things do become downright surreal in a way that’s instantly recognizable as Kaufman-esque—I won’t spoil the shift of tone for you, but it does involve, first, a curious Japanese automaton, and later, a hair-raising encounter with the hotel staff. But the action could have remained in absolutely everyday mode and still been deeply strange, just by virtue of its being acted out by puppets.”–Jonathan Romney, Film Comment (contemporaneous)