“Anomalisa” Is Typical Kaufman, for (Mostly) Better and for Worse


Anomalisa (Duke Johnson/Charlie Kaufman, 2015)

As a screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman has been responsible for some of the most inventive scripts of the past two decades, starting with Being John Malkovich, in 1999, and continuing through such superior examples as Adaptation. (the period is in the title) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in the early aughts, to name my favorites. Then, in 2008, he finally directed his first feature, Synecdoche, New York (which he also wrote). In each of these films, Kaufman explores similar topics, which include: the alienation of modern life; the banality of that same modern life; the fear of losing one’s individuality amongst said banality; and the struggle to remain true to whatever one’s particular individuality may be. Sometimes, even in his most brilliant moments, he can be almost a little too clever by half, with a screenplay that weaves its story threads into such perfectly constructed knots that unwrapping the whole can be tiresome for those who just want a simple tale well told. But the rewards are always great, and the intrepid viewer, hungry for liberation from the banal blockbusters of our day, will find much to love in a Kaufman film.

Now, with Anomalisa – which Kaufman wrote (based on his “sound play” of the same title) and co-directed with stop-motion animation specialist Duke Johnson (for whom this is the first feature, though he has previously made short films and TV episodes) – we have a continuation of the same themes and story styles that manages to feel simultaneously old and new (if also tedious, at times, much as was Synecdoche, New York). Or maybe a better way to describe it is to say it is extraordinarily ordinary, much as the central female character, Lisa, appears to the protagonist, Michael. There’s nothing special about her, and yet she is the most unusual person he meets. Similarly, nothing much seems to happen here, yet the film is about momentous events in a man’s life. That paradox is at the heart of Kaufman’s appeal, and also part of the problem. Even after seeing the film twice, I wonder whether it is really about that much at all. Which may be the point. All I do know is that the film remains a vivid memory, and probably will for some time.

When we first meet Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis, Duncan in the recent Macbeth), it is only after we have first been surrounded by voices, all of which sound the same, even though they appear to be conversing. Then we see a cloudy sky, into which a plane flies. That must be where the voices are coming from, we think. But no: one of the voices remarks on the appearance of the plane, and then the camera pulls back, revealing that we are, in fact, in another plane, where Michael sits, watching the sky. It’s a lovely hint at Kaufman’s technique of revealing layers beyond the obvious. Soon afterwards, Michael lands in Cincinnati, grabs his bag and hails a taxi. By this time, we have begun to notice that everyone but Michael not only sounds the same, but looks the same. They also all – including Michael – have seams showing at the eyeline (a deliberate choice by the directors, since these seams are what allow one to manipulate the facial expressions of the puppets, yet they chose not to mask them in post-production).

By the time we get to the hotel, we have learned that Michael is here to give a talk (he lives in Los Angeles). We will soon also learn that he is a well-known author and “customer service” specialist and married with a child. And we will confirm that everyone else is, in fact, voiced by the same actor (Tom Noonan, Sammy in Synecdoche, New York), and decorated with the same face, no matter their age, size or gender. In other words, this is Michael’s world, where everyone blends together (including his wife and child). Until he meets Lisa, a middle-aged woman staying in the same hotel, whose voice (Jennifer Jason Leigh, currently also starring in The Hateful Eight) rings out in the midst of all the homogeneity. Can she save Michael? Is Michael capable of being saved?

This is a film about a 50-something man going through a nervous breakdown, and whatever you think of the often depressive reality of his life as represented on screen, it is hard to argue against the brilliance of the visual and aural conceits of the film. Noonan is a wonder, and much of the humor (it is often quite funny) of Anomalisa comes from him, though Ms. Leigh is also delightful. It’s a beautiful film to look at, too, as the animation stands out from the plastic sameness of so many studio releases. If I can’t quite make up my mind about how I feel about the whole, that doesn’t mind I didn’t enjoy the experience of watching it. At only 90 minutes, it’s a brief affair, and will hopefully stay with you as it has with me.

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