The glowingly positive reviews that Charlie Kaufman’s stop-motion experiment Anomalisa has received, justified as they are, seem to be misrepresenting the kind of film this is.
The hyperbolic pull quotes on the poster which say things like “Anomalisa changed my life” or “It’s a daring examination of individuality and the human need to connect” may fool you into thinking this is an inspirational film, one which sets out to open the viewer’s eyes to the richness and wonder of the world.
It is the exact opposite of that.
Anomalisa is a film which revels in the beige and mundane. Basic relatable moments, like struggling with the hot water in an unfamiliar shower or passing by a couple having an argument receive inordinate amounts of time. This doesn’t slow the storytelling, as there’s not much story to tell. Rather, these long stretches of time serve as deceptively simple checkpoints for the audience to process what, if anything, is really happening beyond face value.
The story follows Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), a depressed and lonely author and motivational speaker arriving at a conference in Cincinnati where he is slated to deliver a speech on effective customer service methods. But Michael exists in an unusual world, one in which every other man, woman, and child around him – from busboys to opera singers – speaks in the same pleasant but dull monotone (voiced by Tom Noonan, who deserves some sort of special award). After a failed attempted to reconnect with his ex-girlfriend, Michael is about to retire to bed when he meets Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), a naive young convention attendee with low self-esteem, and the only other person with a different voice in the world as far as Michael knows. Lisa is surprised and charmed by Michael’s interest in her and the two connect and fall in love for the night, but in the morning things feel a little less miraculous.
There’s a lot to unpack here, starting with the choice of puppetry as the chosen medium for this story. Because of the animation, because we’re aware these characters aren’t “real”, we’re more willing to accept strange things in their universe. That is, we’re willing to accept that Tom Noonan’s voice is diegetic, that in-universe this is what people sound like, just like we accept that the characters in Pleasantville have never seen colors. It even appears that the other characters around Michael aren’t even different puppets, they’re the same facial model with different hair and clothes stitched on. (A trope also used by Kaufmann in Synecdoche, New York.)
But as time goes on, it becomes more likely that this isn’t the case, it’s just in Michael’s head, or it’s just how he feels about other people until he is convinced that Lisa is different. This train of thought makes Michael somewhat less sympathetic, but at the same time his loneliness come from such a human place that even as he cheats on his wife and makes everyone around him feel worse, you can still empathize with him. It also flips the “chosen one” narrative on its head, but simultaneously suggests that Michael’s “mental illness” might be that he’s slowly becoming aware of the fact that he is a puppet. Which would make him special and unique.
That’s just the start of a string of possible interpretations for the events which unfold in Anomalisa.
The puppetry and animation isn’t exactly seamless, which I believe is intentional, but the motion feels real enough to maintain a razor-thin balance between engaging and off-putting. On some level, the visuals of Anomalisa are constantly co-opting the uncanny valley, making the viewer’s brain feel that these people are realistic while shielding us from accepting that they are in fact “real”-real. (This is true of any movie, but Anomalisa takes it to the next logical step.)
At the same time, the voice work by Thewlis, Leigh, and Noonan is incredible. Listening to Thewlis stumble around small talk with Noonan’s taxi drivers or desk clerks is simultaneously soothing and frustrating. It makes fun of Michael’s misanthropy, but also makes it seem understandable. Leigh’s performance brings out Lisa’s vulnerability and makes her the perfect counterpoint for Michael, possessing all of his loneliness and desire to connect, but without his bitterness.
So perhaps it’s wrong of me to say other critics are “overselling” Anomalisa. It’s a film that capitalizes on being different things to different people, what you take from it heavily depends on what you bring into it. As Michael himself says, “Each person has had a day, some of the days have been good, some have been bad.” This is the brilliance of Anomalisa: it dwells in multiple worlds effectively so that there is plenty to praise and to condemn about each aspect of the film, just as there is with most things in life. Unlike the poster, I can’t guarantee that Anomalisa is a life-changing experience, but I can tell you it’s a rewarding and sometimes confusing one. It’s a sweet and dark film filled with complexities begging to be unraveled, with no clear answer. In short, it’s the contemplation of existence that Charlie Kaufman has always wanted to have.
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