“Nah. That’s British Airways.”
Leave it to Charlie Kaufman to write a play about human connection and have it be just three actors who don’t physically interact—two playing single characters and the third everyone else with no discernable attempt to differentiate his voice. Then leave it to Dino Stamatopoulos and Dan Harmon of “Community” and “Moral Orel” fame to think it would make a great stopmotion animated film co-directed by Duke Johnson wherein Tom Noonan‘s stable of characters could literally all have the same face. This is Anomalisa: an adaptation Kaufman unsurprisingly didn’t embrace straight away due to its theater machinations that eventually grossed close to half a million dollars on Kickstarter so the world could experience it. Of course I donated. It was a homerun at the pitch stage.
Even so, the love it found at Telluride, TIFF, and Venice was completely unexpected. Let’s remember that Kaufman’s wildest ideas went into the vastly underrated Synecdoche, New York and he hadn’t really done anything since despite hits Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Adaptation under his belt. If I were to compare Anomalisa to any of these previous films it would definitely be Synecdoche because of how identity is handled as well as human psychology. Strangely enough, though, despite having a medium as constraint-free as stopmotion—each character built from a 3D printer to help facilitate extremely realistic expressions—this latest might be one of his most grounded works yet. I’m talking to the point where they could have easily shot it live action.
But that isn’t the point. I liken the film to when Starburns Industries animated an episode of “Community” as a sort of escape from reality no matter how many “real” things still occurred. As Anomalisa moves forward we begin to realize what we’re seeing isn’t necessarily the world in which Michael Stone (David Thewlis) inhabits. Rather it’s the world as he sees it—one slowly covered over by a filter of monotony built from his own mundane existence chipping away his resolve. His life’s depressing enough due to his customer service field expertise (yawn) requiring he travel alone from one city to the next to share the same speech over and over ad nauseam. The repetition in action seeping into his human interactions only compounds his emotional turmoil.
There’s no time for true connection despite his yearning for exactly that. He’s grown tired of wife Donna and their young son—each voice over the phone sounding identical to the seedy cab driver pitching him a visit to the zoo for its highly marketable “zoo size”. Dennis the bellboy leaves his hotel room and the person answering for room service speaks with the same voice so that we’re not even sure if it’s a man or woman. It couldn’t have always been like this, though. There must have been more than annoying small talk and excruciating homogenization or else he’d never have found Donna to marry. And what about the old Cincinnati flame that left him a string of expletives in letter form after he disappeared a decade ago?
What’s intriguing is the fact that we don’t really think much of this congruity until something new is introduced. We laugh when he calls that old girlfriend and isn’t sure who answered the phone and we become as exasperated as she when his reply to the question, “Why did you leave?” is the generic, “I have psychological issues.” It’s a throwaway joke, another Kaufman-ism of eccentric humor to file away in wait for the next except for it actually being so much more. A voice is soon heard in the hallway and it isn’t Noonan—something I don’t believe registered after going so long without differentiation. Michael hears it, though, and he struggles to enter the hallway and discover who it is. Life might be turning a corner.
What follows is possibly the most authentically blossoming relationship in the movies of the past decade or longer, one evolved from awkwardness and idolatry on behalf of both parties. For some reason yet to be explained, Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) sounds nothing like the waitress, the hotel general manager, or even her best friend Emily. Hers is a voice that cuts through the static straight to Michael’s heart, an anomaly of uniqueness to cherish and covet just as he is of intelligence (she’s in Cincinnati specifically to watch his speech). But even though they both desire the other, neither has been in the position to want in such a long time. He’s been battling the doldrums of sameness and she her own resigned notion of personal ugliness.
They open each other up literally and figuratively to the promise of a new chapter in their lives. Yes the 3D-printed puppets have sex and it is as graphic (not-so much) as any other comparable scene in a live action R-rated film. They are trepidatious and all thumbs at the start before familiarity and comfort rolls in like a sigh of relief. It’s the kind of moment that makes you wonder if the world as we’ve seen it has been cured of whatever weirdness made it like it is. But then the phone rings with the voice of Noonan on the other end to remind us life isn’t happily-ever-after no matter how joyous certain days prove. We are who we are and the world what it is.
There’s more than meets the eye and the truth will come out with a stirring sequence finally utilizing the medium to its fullest effect. But beyond the fantastical and artificial extremes is the story of a man lost and adrift in a life of which he feels trapped. He tries to escape it only to find himself right back where he began with a nasty letter stemming from a complete one-eighty with another woman he couldn’t bear longer than his mind’s quest for “new” could provide. We’ve all fallen in this trap before, sleepwalking through the day-to-day with no promise of anything more than we already have. We come home and wonder if the merry-go-round can stop, but responsibilities and obligations flood back to remind us of the struggle.
Anomalisa like all Kaufman’s work speaks to us through stylized artifice like something more overt never could. He has a knack for creating seemingly odd situations on the surface that resonate fully in execution. Michael’s dream of complacency becomes both a powerful enemy consuming any respite found and a beautifully horrific nightmare he chose along the way. On first blush it’s a bittersweet reality-check that life’s an arduous slog endured for those brief but profound moments of happiness as strong in the present as they are fleeting in the past. With more contemplation, however, I noticed a glimmer of hope. Because while Lisa is the latest of a familiar anomaly always absorbed back into the mold, she’s also proof that breaking the cycle is possible. Never give up hope.
courtesy of Paramount Pictures