Anomalisa | Review
“All men’s misfortunes spring from their hatred of being alone.” –Jean de La Bruyère
Charlie Kaufman has a sense of imagination and creativity that seems endless when compared with some of the run-of-the-mill, superhero blockbusters that fill the screens we flock to each and every year. His screenplays are like a wellspring of some weird, beautiful, sometimes demented dream (or nightmare). They’re somewhere in-between that moment when you know you’ve been awake for way too long, but you force yourself to stay there; you’re absorbed in the thoughts that play out in front of you on the threshold of consciousness. In case I’m not being descriptive enough, I’ll just list out some of his other films: Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Synedoch, NY. All of those movies are mind-bending in one way or another, whether they’re dealing with the idea of love, or of creativity, or even immortality–all themes that have been tackled by other films and filmmakers before, but rarely on a level as imaginative and weird as Kaufman concocts.
Maybe that’s why I left Kaufman’s latest film, Anomalisa, so cold and upset with myself. It ticks all the boxes of being a ‘Charlie Kaufman’ movie, but I never connected with the characters or the events that unfolded, and I think I know why. But before I explain, there are some things that you need to understand about this film:
It’s weird. Really weird. Possibly the weirdest film Kaufman has ever created. First of all, it’s animated using stop-motion, and all the characters are 3D-printed puppets. Those two facts on their own wouldn’t make you think this would be a film about a man searching for meaning and love in a life that’s devoid of both, but there you have it. And secondly, Anomalisa was funded, in part, by the Kickstarter community in an effort to make a “unique and beautiful film outside of the typical Hollywood studio system….” That’s noteworthy because Kaufman wanted to tell a story that he didn’t think Hollywood believed in, and he wanted to keep his original vision as intact as possible. I think that that sentiment truly shines through when you’re watching the film, and it’s wonderful to see a writer/director so passionate about his own work.
The story focuses on Michael Stone (David Thewlis) an inspirational speaker and author who’s traveling to Cincinnati, Ohio so he can promote his new book at a hotel customer service conference. The rub is that Michael suffers from the Fregoli delusion, and perceives everyone around him as being the same person; strangers, old friends, even his wife and son all look and sound like the same person (with slight variations depending on age and gender). Every person he meets has the same exact voice (performed by the wonderful Tom Noonan) and it’s slowly driving him further and further away from the relationships that he’s built his life upon; his marriage has been weathered and weakened by his distant, unfeeling demeanor and he’s long since stopped believing in the words he wrote to inspire the people reading them.
This makes for a dismal first twenty minutes as we follow Michael around as he mostly wallows in self-pity and fails at building up any type of meaningful relationship with anyone. That is, until he hears a voice that’s different from the sameness he’s grown accustomed to. After a desperate search, he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who’s attending his conference with her friend. Suffice it to say, Michael becomes enamored with Lisa and the most effecting part of the film deals with their relationship and how it blossoms.
It’s here where Anomalisa excels. The direction and writing by Kaufman (and co-direction by Duke Johnson) during the second act are phenomenal, using slow builds during critical moments that don’t feel forced or untruthful, and pitch-perfect dialogue and acting to absolutely sell the love story that’s being told. I was also shocked at just how emotive and realistic the puppets looked, which is due in no small part to the incredible animation and cinematography (done by the wonderful Joe Passarelli) and production design that envelopes the film and creates it’s own little world that truly comes alive.
But it’s also in the second act where Anamolisa ceased to be as emotionally impactful as I thought it would be, and again, I think I know why. It’s difficult to talk about this without spoiling the ending, so instead I’m going to talk about myself: I’ve never been in a long-term relationship with anyone, so I consider myself particularly inexperienced in that specific facet of life. The only experience I have is secondhand, which comes from family and friends who’ve talked to me about their own ups and downs with significant others. I can empathize with those who share their experiences with me, but I can’t ever truly understand them because I haven’t experienced it for myself yet. And that’s where Anamolisa lost me.
It deals with a man who meets a woman, who falls in love, and who has to deal with the repercussions that his choices have on his own life and the life of his family. The film’s ending gets into some very deep waters both emotionally and psychologically, and for me, I simply couldn’t relate to what I saw on screen. I couldn’t empathize with Michael because his story didn’t ring true for me, not because I don’t believe real life can be like that, but because…I’m completely out of my depth when it comes to falling in love.
If the film has a failing, it’s that it’s too real, that it’s based too much upon Kaufman’s own view of the world and of the people in it and the relationships that they have. It excludes those of us who haven’t yet had the opportunity to know what he knows, to find out for ourselves whether it’s true or not. And that’s a good thing. We’re meant to learn and experience and live our lives at our own pace, and eventually, hopefully, we come to an understanding about ourselves. I think Anamolisa is important because of what it means to the people who can fully appreciate its message, and can relate to what Kaufman is trying to say.
In a few years, maybe I’ll be one of them.