Directors: Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson
Writer: Charlie Kaufman
Cast: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan
Genre: Comedy, Romance, Drama, Animation
In a career defined by originality and creativity, Anomalisa is Charlie Kaufman’s most inventive movie yet. A stop-motion animated revelation, Kaufman, along with co-director Duke Johnson, forces us to examine how we perceive our own lives and those of the people around us. The protagonist asks us: what is it to be human? The film is a slow-burn character study which also pushes the boundaries of the content in animated movies. It lives up to the hype, having been nominated for numerous awards including the Oscar for Best Animated Feature since its debut at the Telluride Film Festival.
This is a film about how we live our lives and connect to each other as humans; like many other Kaufman works, his protagonists are imprisoned in their own minds, unable to communicate or connect with the world around them and the people that matter. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Joel tries to find resolution for his relationship with his ex-girlfriend Clementine in a trip through his memories as they are being erased. In Being John Malkovich, Craig finds catharsis in the mind of John Malkovich, allowing him an escape from the banality of his personal and work life. In Synecdoche New York, Caden loses himself in the production of his play as he seeks the answers to solve his troubles. Kaufman is a master at crafting stories with inventive and absurd conceits, and grounding them with themes of universality to explore loneliness and unhappiness.
In Anomalisa, our protagonist is Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a middle-aged British expat who is an author and a motivational speaker specialising in customer service. It’s ironic, because he has no idea how to communicate to or understand people himself. At one point in the film, when he is giving a speech, he says “each person you speak to has had a day. Some of the days have been good, some bad. Each person you speak to has had a childhood. Each has a body and each body has had aches.” This is advice he is giving out, but has not yet accepted for himself. Every conversation he has with the people around him, from the man sitting next to him on the plane to Cincinnati to the taxi driver driving him to his hotel, is tinged with frustration. Everything feels boring to him; his life is monotonous and utterly banal.
This is reinforced by the main conceit created by the animation in the film. To Michael, everyone looks and sounds the same, even his wife, son, and ex-girlfriend, who he tries to reconnect and sleep with on his trip. They all have the same face, that of a nondescript white male’s, and they all have the same voice (played by Tom Noonan), cheery but completely bland. In a particularly memorable scene, Michael dreams that they are all robots, complete with detachable faces. Throughout the film, he has an existential crisis—is everyone the same, deep down, with no capacity for individualism, including him?
His life takes a turn, at least for a few hours, when by chance hears a different, female voice outside his hotel room. He meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a sensitive and shy customer service representative who is at the hotel for his speech. She admires him and his—in her eyes— charm and ability to talk to people; the complete opposite of herself, scarred (both inside and out) and lacking in confidence. Michael finds her honesty and self-depreciation intriguing. “I think you’re extraordinary”, he tells her. They sleep together, in an awkward but strangely intimate love scene where they spend most of the time reassuring each other that they’re special. Lisa shows us that Michael has some capacity for love and tenderness, no matter how deeply buried inside of him it is. He’s an unsympathetic protagonist, and could possibly even be considered an anti-hero, but on some level, he’s redeemable. It’s unclear, however, whether he sees Lisa as special because she in turn believes that Michael himself is special (and thus contrary to his fears, not the same as everyone else), or because he truly thinks that she is an ‘anomaly’.
Stop-motion animation is not merely a gimmick in the movie, and it’s used to great effect—what can be more unsettling than a film about the human experience and human connection featuring nothing more than fragile, inanimate puppets? It’s also able to create a world that is jarringly both realistic and dreamlike. The raindrops on the window of a taxi glisten brightly as it drips down; the eyes of the puppets seemingly flash with emotion when its hit with light. The architecture of the hotel, where the majority of the film is set in, screams mundanity, a perfect reflection of Michael’s life.
Anomalisa is refreshing in a world where western animated cinema is dominated by movies aimed at children. It’s also honest in a way that even most live-action movies aren’t, filled with truths and fears that are dark, but exist in all of us. It’s funny, intimate, melancholic and sad, and will leave you pondering on its ideas for a long time to come.