My first encounter with Charlie Kaufman, like most who know his work, came in the film Being John Malkovich. Kaufman wrote the screenplay and it was a truly off kilter, intriguing film. It seemed that more of his work came in quick succession via Human Nature, Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. After a brief lull he released his directorial debut: Synecdoche, New York. And now is his strangest visual work, Anomalisa.
Anomalisa is the story of Michael Stone (the voice of David Thewlis), the author of books on effective customer service. He’s come to Cincinnati, Ohio to promote his latest book at some sort of convention (the film keeps those details vague). Michael has a problem when it comes to other people, something I won’t spoil here, that causes him to never fully connect or interact in a meaningful way. He eventually meets Lisa (the voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh) and he begins to think things are turning around for him.
Like all of Kaufman’s work, this film has already burrowed itself into my mind and I know it will stay with me for a long time. His greatest talent is his ability to mine such unpleasant and neurotic landscape of our psyche in ways that make it difficult to look away. Synecdoche examined a man’s yearning to find a deeper connection with others, but Michael doesn’t seem to desire a means to overcome his personal issues. He wants the connection, he knows vaguely what is wrong with him, but he inevitably gives up. Everyone around Michael is very pleasant, even when they get angry they sound soothing. This lack of emotion seems drive Michael deeper into need to be separate, while frustratingly want to communicate. It is intentional that the only scenes in the film that don’t have an annoying level of background noise are when Michael escapes to his hotel room.
The choice to make Anomalisa a stop motion animated film might seem like a bit of visual vanity if you’ve just seen the trailers. The filmmakers strive for realism out of the characters, which they truly achieve. It is the context of Michael’s disorder when he views others that makes the animated elements essential. There is no way the film could have been done in live action and get across the alienation that the animation choices provide. A crucial scene between Michael and Lisa in the film’s third act is the ultimate realization of why stop motion was essential to the film.
This is not a “fun” movie to watch, much of Kaufman’s work is not. There was a backlash as the film made its way through the film festival circuit about the unsavory aspects of the Michael character and speculation as to what moral judgments Kaufman was attempting to convey. In my own viewing, I never felt that it was communicated to the audience that Michael was a positive character and I do not believe Kaufman was attempting to make him sympathetic. The director simply wanted to make him a “true” character. What Michael does is what hundreds if not thousands of despondent, aimless, middle aged men do every day. It doesn’t make them right, but the film is not intending to promote an idealized view of the world. At it’s core, this is anti-indie film. When you look at works that exemplify the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” genre you find an absence of real emotion. Kaufman’s response in Anomalisa is to show the truth of those scenarios playing themselves out. Your life will not be saved through a fateful meeting with a spirited young woman who will awaken something in you. Young women are not thresholds through which middle aged men pass to rediscover themselves.
If you allow yourself to view Anomalisa on Kaufman’s terms you will end up with a film experience that will not leave you easily. If you are uncomfortable, then that is good because that was the intent of the film. Anomalisa is about the narcissistic malaise most privileged people find themselves in after achieving a certain level of success. It is about the struggle humanity continually has in forging real connections with others that don’t focus on what emotional energy you can take from them.