The portmanteau which comprises the title of Anomalisa is one of the most clever names for a movie I’ve seen in quite some time. What seems sheer nonsense gradually becomes clearer (and pronounceable) about halfway through the film as a designation not merely of a person but of a manner of perspective. How or what it means I will leave for you to discover in a film full of marvelous surprises, though I will say that it is uttered at the heart of a fable bursting with visual imagination and droll wit before one of the most frank, emotionally honest cinematic sex scenes I have ever seen. And it’s all accomplished with stop-motion puppets.
I know what you’re thinking, but bear with me for a moment. Charlie Kaufman, the premier contemporary connoisseur of neuroses and psychoanalysis in American film, hasn’t merely attempted a highbrow iteration of the infamously scatological sequence from Team America: World Police. Rather, his entire venture, which was undertaken with the gifted animator Duke Johnson, is replete with a wicked and recognizably bizarre sense of humor but is as solemn as the grave in its portrait of a depressed man’s egoism and hebetude. That man is Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a successful author whose book about customer service has earned him a cult following among the faithful fans who line up for his forthcoming guest lecture in Cincinnati. The chief attractions in the city, at least according to the loquacious cabbie who drives Michael from the airport, are the zoo and the chili, the latter a particular highlight. Michael absorbs the trivial information culled by this man with the same disaffected, tired resolve he shows towards everyone else he meets, primarily because they all sound the same. Indeed, nearly every other character, both male and female, old and young, is voiced by Tom Noonan, his droning inflection providing the biggest laughs of the film. It should be worth noting that the hotel Michael resides in for the majority of the tale is a nod towards the Fregoli Delusion, and those familiar with it will quickly understand it’s thematic and textual significance.
In fact, the women in Michael’s life bear such an uncanny resemblance towards one another, including his wife and the former flame of years past he disastrously attempts to reconnect with, that it comes as a shock to both him and us when we first hear the voice of Lisa, or more precisely that of Jennifer Jason Leigh. The chance encounter between these damaged souls shares a superficial resemblance of countless precursors, both good and bad, that have utilized a similar template which propagates the regressive Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype. But what Kaufman accomplishes, in no small part due to Leigh’s extraordinary vocal performance, is the vivid creation of a female protagonist who exists outside of the sole purpose of providing a shred of fulfillment for the beleaguered romantic interest. Take note, for example, of the way the sequence in which Michael invites Lisa up to his room is staged. I have revealed the ultimate outcome, but that is only part of its bold brilliance. We, almost separately from Michael, come to not only glean from Lisa her untapped facets of desire and beauty, but a surprising reservoir of fortitude and self-awareness. This is less a woman who doesn’t know what she wants but rather has convinced herself into believing she doesn’t through self-loathing (her facial scars, the origins of which are never revealed, are consistently concealed by a curtain of black hair). That is why the moment she and Michael consummate their infatuation with one another is so powerful, in spite of the fact that we’re watching two puppets engage in perfectly awkward, intimate intercourse. For the first time in what has presumably been a long time, they freely expose themselves, not merely physically but emotionally and psychologically as well, to another human being.
If my attempts at articulating this unforgettable moment seem to imply that the rest of the film pales in comparison, I’m pleased to say that, on the contrary, Anomalisa retains the signature flourishes of surrealism its creator imbued in Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Synecdoche, New York throughout its swift running time. Oddly enough, the film I was reminded most of while watching Anomalisa wasn’t one that Kaufman had a hand in making, but rather Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. As a matter of fact, it isn’t a stretch to connect the thematic concerns of circuitous monotony and fetishized escapism as symptomatic of societal ills between the films. Whereas Gilliam set his parable in an unspecified year near the end of the 20th Century, Kaufman and Johnson retain the period of Bush II-era America of the former’s original play. If Brazil directly targets a broad caricature of bureaucratic incompetence, Anomalisa subtly jabs at the neoliberal economic policies that reached their logical apex before near-financial ruin on a national scale at the end of Bush’s tenure in office. While Kaufman’s intentions are not to draft a political treatise, his parable nevertheless elucidates the pervasive presence of fervent capitalism in contemporary society and, more importantly, the manner in which it compounds the isolation between producer and consumer, as epitomized by the Japanese sex doll Michael unwisely decides to purchase for his young son at a “24-hour toy store.”
Indeed, the automaton comes to be a key image that conveys the faded artifice of a life consisting of Belvedere martinis and exclusive hotel rooms with abstruse phone buttons. But perhaps most importantly, this motif stands in as a sybaritic signifier for the personal redintegration Michael yearns for throughout the film as he regards this tragicomic figurine. It is the unexpected elegance of Anomalisa that the artists that brought it to life endow what are ostensibly inanimate objects with empathetic immediacy. The film’s end, I will carefully say, gently disarms our expectations without betraying the narrative conceit of subjectivity it has heretofore committed to and yields the modus operandi of Kaufman and Johnson; to investigate the potential of the cinema to bring all of us, however briefly, outside the spectrum of our constrictive, singular, and, for better or worse, human experience to try and better understand both ourselves and each other.