A lonely businessman can’t keep hold of relationships and feels perpetually lonely, but he finds a temporary love in a one-night-stand with a younger woman who is different than everyone else.
Anomalisa shines a light for a short time on the life of Michael Stone, a successful customer service expert. Stone has a fitting name, because although he feels very lonely, he finds it impossible to feel a deep, resting love for other individuals. At least, a love that goes deeper than the rush of infatuation of a first meeting. People all look alike to him, and sound alike, and don’t mean so much to him. The love they demand from him feels like a burden that he runs away from.
Anomalisa, basically, is a short story about a one-night-stand. Michael Stone meets Lisa, and for a night in a hotel he finally feels uninhibited love. But, this film is written and directed by Charlie Kaufman and that warns you that a deeper and more involving story is laying before you, and most probably narrated using magical realism. Kaufman as both a writer or a director is known from Being John Malkovich (1999), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Synecdoche, New York (2008), all very gripping movies about love, memory and identity, with a spoonful of fantasy. Some of my favorite movies ever made. The same themes return in Anomalisa. Kaufman takes the short period of a single night for his story, and peels away some layers of Stone’s identity to come to a deeper insight into his emotions.
Michael Stone is not a hero and not even a sympathetic main character. Not far into the story it becomes clear that his flighty behavior gives others a lot of pain and hurt. He is lonely and full of nerves, he smokes and drinks a lot to feel at ease, but in the end he thinks mainly about himself. The needs of others come sort of secondary to easing the twisting, curling sadness inside him. Kaufman designed the film so that we can at least understand how he feels. Part of Kaufman’s strategy was to make an animated movie out of it.
This is not to say that Anomalisa is a film for children, far from it. The film is very explicit about intimacy and the subtle signs and mood swings that are mostly recognizable for adults. Kaufman really jumps into the deep end, making his film occasionally uncomfortable and awkward. It is a pity that the film ends up in the category of animated movies for the award ceremonies, because the animation in Anomalisa is there for a singular goal that is different from a normal animated movie: it is to express the loneliness of Michael Stone’s world.
The puppets of Anomalisa have some loose parts in the face, with a ridge between the eyes. It takes some getting used to, and the animation is close to the uncanny valley. The idea underneath the use of puppets is that people tend to wear social masks in public, making their true feelings invisible, and the puppets show this, literally. Besides that, all puppets, except Michael and Lisa, have the same voice by Tom Noonan (men, women and children) and the same facial shape. Only Lisa jumps out of it. It shows how little Michael feels connected with the people around him. The anonymity of the hotel underscores how little meaning the world around him carries. The film also starts and ends with the same meaningless small talk that gives Michael nothing but a headache.
In typical Kaufman style, almost everything about the movie related to the central idea. Michael is an expert on customer service and in a way this is connected to his deeper personal experience in making social masks for himself and pleasing people who want something from him. It is fun exploring these deeper connections inside the film, but I was also surprised when the story ended quickly. It is a short story with a simple setup, and I think the film would have been better if it had been longer and more complex, and Michael’s problems had been explored deeper. Because right now, they are presented as just one of those things that happen in life, without giving it a deeper meaning or a deeper insight into the causes.
There is a lot of artistry in this movie. The voice work by David Trewlis as Michael, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lisa and Tom Noonan as everyone else is phenomenal. Together with the subtle expressions of the puppets and the realistic lights and colors of the surroundings, I was totally sucked into the film. It is excellently written and I am somewhat relieved that the film is not necessarily standing on the side of the main character, but matters of good and bad are kept neutral and people are not labeled as one or the other.
Conclusion: Anomalisa is excellently made, captivating on the emotional side and intriguing in its setup. It won’t speak to everyone, but if it does, then it has the strength and courage to touch people in a very personal way. It is a somber movie though and lacks a cathartic ending to give meaning to it all.