The films of Charlie Kaufman often deal with isolation, loneliness, and depression – and his latest film Anomalisa is no exception. Directed by Kaufman and Duke Johnson and based on the stage play written by Kaufman, this stop-motion animated film brilliantly takes advantage of the medium with inspired stylistic choices and the peculiarities that we are accustomed to from Kaufman. The result is a heartbreaking story about a man desperately seeking an escape from the mundanity of his life, and not really succeeding. Along the way, Anomalisa contains moments of profound beauty, as these stop-motion puppets struggle with emotions and problems which are startlingly human.
Anomalisa opens with Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis, best known as Remis Lupin from the Harry Potter films) gazing out at the clouds from his window seat. We learn he is traveling to Cincinnati to give a seminar on the importance of customer service, a topic on which he has published a highly successful book. As the plane taxis into the gate, Michael fumbles with an angry letter from a past romantic partner of his named Bella. Michael checks into his hotel and begins practicing his speech, but ultimately succumbs to the temptation of calling up Bella, who lives in town.
I am a bit embarrassed to say it, but it wasn’t until Bella showed up that I realized exactly what was going on. You see, everyone who isn’t Michael Stone has a face built from the same model, and all of them share a single voice (Tom Noonan is credited as “Everyone Else”). Up until this point, even as Michael spoke to his significant other and son, I simply assumed that all of these people were men with a non-descript voice and that Bella was another gay man. It finally clicked with me when Bella shows up to share a drink with Michael, as she is clearly a woman and I begin to see other women also sharing the face and voice. The story of Michael and Bella’s relationship is doled out in vagaries, but it becomes clear that everything was going okay for a period of time until Michael just up and abandoned her without explanation. He expresses his regret at these actions, but doesn’t offer any real reason for having left Bella. As he drinks more, he pleads for Bella to remember if anything changed. Did he change? Did she change? Did anything?
This is the first instance of the style in Anomalisa informing a thematic or storytelling element of the film. The construction of Michael’s world, where everyone looks and sounds the same, is unique to animation, especially to stop-motion animation with puppets where all of the figures can be literally modeled from the same mold. The crushing sameness of Michael’s world implies a resigned boredom, and it becomes easy to see just how lonely and isolated he feels. But, this realization didn‘t occur to me until a couple of scenes later, when Michael emerges from the shower and hears a different voice in the hallway!
He rushes to throw on some clothes, and begins knocking on each door on his floor looking for the person with the new voice Eventually, he finds her. Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), along with her friend and coworker, have traveled to see Michael give his talk, and they love his book. Entranced with Lisa’s uniqueness, Michael invites them down for drinks, and sets to wooing Lisa. Lisa is an awkward woman, and has a habit of apologizing for minor, presumed gaffes. She remarks multiple times that she is boring, not pretty, and not smart. None of this matters to Michael, though. Eventually, he works up the courage to invite Lisa to his room (but not her friend), and she accepts.
In the room, Lisa continues to express her disbelief that Michael wants her and not her friend. She is embarrassed by a scar on her face, which she hides with her hair style, and when Michael asks if he can kiss her there, she recoils, afraid that Michael has some kind of fetish – he couldn’t really like her for being her, could he?
Lisa is a ball of insecurities and awkwardness, but none of this matters to Michael, because in many ways she is literally the only person in the world to him right now. Everyone else is the same boring nothing. He asks her to keep talking to him, and even gets he to sing her favorite Cyndi Lauper song for him, which is beautiful. Lisa is still self-conscious, saying she feels dumb in Michael’s presence. After all, she had to read his book with a dictionary to be able to understand all the words. One of her favorites was “anomaly”. The two continue talking, and eventually have sex. Many of the accounts of this film identified this sequence as overlong and awkward, but I found the entire scene to be wonderful and adorable. Here are two people with their own issues finding each other in an otherwise cold and indifferent world. Lisa’s confidence has been battered down to the point that she hardly believes that someone could find value in her, and Michael yearns for something new, something surprising, something with value. Somehow, they each find what they are looking for in this moment, and it melts your heart.
Of course, the seeds for the conclusion to this story have already been sown. So, the next morning, as Michael and Lisa discuss their future, Lisa’s peccadilloes start to annoy Michael. Slowly, he starts to hear the omnipresent voice droning underneath hers (the sound mixing here is absolutely perfect), until all of her uniqueness evaporates once and for all. It becomes clear that this has happened to him before, with Bella, and it is happening again. He can’t handle it, and suffers a bit of a breakdown during his speech, screaming his loneliness at the identical faces in the crowd.
Upon returning home, Michael’s wife has thrown him a surprise party. But, everyone at the party, his wife and son included, share the same face. He fights with his wife, alienates his guests, and sits despondent on the stairs as the crippling depression consumes him completely. For the whole film, Michael feared that there was something wrong with him. Here, at the end, as we hear Lisa’s voice again, we begin to understand just how right he was. As Lisa writes Michael a letter, expressing her love for him and reminiscing fondly on their tryst, the camera pans up from her pen and paper and we see her in the passenger seat of her friend’s convertible. Each woman has her own face.
Anomalisa is a devastating investigation of loneliness and depression. At first, iterating the same voice and face ad infinitum is a confusing choice, until you realize that it perfectly dramatizes the slow spiral into the mundane that so many depressed men and women experience. Michael’s world has slowly lost all joy, though we know that at one point things were different. Lisa offered an all-too-brief respite, but did not solve Michael’s underlying issues, which may be mental health problems, alcoholism, or simply ennui run amok. Someone like Lisa who exists outside of these doldrums, even for a brief moment, is certainly an “anomaly”. Anomalisa.