As is the case with virtually every project that has Charlie Kaufman’s fingerprints on it, Anomalisa is an insight into the writer/director’s particularly idiosyncratic worldview and plethora of neuroses. The film tells the story of a lonely, mentally ill man (voiced by David Thewlis) who travels to Cincinatti to present a keystone speech at a customer service convention. Every person that he encounters along the way has the same face and speaks with the same voice (Tom Noonan), including cab drivers, his wife and son, and even the former lover with whom he attempts to reconnect on his single night in town. When she revels how emotionally and irrevocably devastated she was by his departure, he finds temporary succor in the arms of a shy woman named Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), whose face is scarred and who is attending the conference with her more extroverted and attractive BFF Emily. Although he contemplates leaving his family for her, in the light of day, she moves from anomalous to anonymous as she takes on the face and voice of everyone else. His presentation goes awry when he has a mental breakdown on stage, and he returns home as empty and incomplete as he was at the film’s outset.
The film is a technical marvel, a stop-motion animated feature that utilized 3D printing to create the many stages of facial expression across a sea of duplicate people, and the design and detail work on display is simply stunning. Michael Stone’s gradually building psychotic episode is beautifully telegraphed in a mirror-contemplating scene that sees his face revolving through a series of different faces, and an operatically composed dream sequence includes a moment where his countenance falls apart and reveals the framework underneath. Technically, the film is virtually flawless once you become accustomed to the world’s aesthetic (the line that separates the tops and bottoms of faces is distracting at the outset), and the concept of a world of interchangeable people is realized elegantly.
The narrative, however, leaves a little to be desired. As a peak into Kaufman’s mind, this is yet another story about a reprehensibly self-oriented and self-interested man whose outbursts this time around are rationalized as the result of an undiagnosed mental illness. Once again, an unsympathetic man is brought so low that we the audience cannot help but feel some empathy for his plight; we spend so much time with Stone alone and in an “unobserved” state that he becomes familiar enough that we’re willing to go along on his journey. Of course, his journey exists only in the literal sense, as, ironically, there is no self-discovery for a man who spends so much of his mental energy reflecting upon himself.
Stone is a man who: passively suggests hooking up with his ex, moments after she reveals that she spent the first year after he left her unable to get out of bed; has raised an utterly spoiled and ungrateful child whose brattiness is communicated in a scant three minutes onscreen; and considers leaving his wife and family for what he presumes would be a life of less self-loathing with an uncomplicated Midwestern woman (who has much more going on under the surface than he is willing or able to see). Although we’re living in a post-Don Draper world and it feel’s like the west is drowning in stories of this ilk, Anomalisa feels fresh, if only because of its unusual visual rhetorical space. It’s utterly impossible to like Stone despite his fundamentally broken nature, but the nature of the presentation goes a long way towards making him stand out from the Tony Sopranos and Dr. Houses of the world. It’s a third-person depiction of a first-person point of view, and this immersiveness saves the film from feeling too stale.
This should in no way be read as an indictment of Thewlis’s performance, which is fantastic. He’s not alone: Leigh also does great work here, playing Lisa’s vulnerability and tenaciousness in equal parts, giving life to a character that is ultimately much more human and endearingly honest than Stone. There’s an edge to her line-readings that gives Lisa a physical presence that could be felt even if there were no plastic bodies awkwardly humping each other on screen. Noonan embues each of the diverse characters he plays with variations on a theme, and his irascible cab driver and burned lover are standouts. Still, Thewlis brings a great dimension to the role of Stone, which also contributes to the effectiveness of the story despite its static narrative.
The story is really only tired in broad strokes, however, as the particularities of details are generally novel. Lisa is essentially the opposite of a manic pixie dream girl, a customer service team leader from Akron who lives in Emily’s shadow and considers herself stupid; her favorite food is scrambled eggs and her musical interests skew heavily toward Cyndi Lauper, but she is genuinely interested in improving herself and the state of her life. Her encounter with Stone changes him not at all, but she grows as a result of it, which is a narrative anomaly (no pun intended). The film is also quite observational in the way that it captures true-to-life moments in awkward conversations with eager service industry personnel (including phone reps, cab drivers, bellboys, bar attendants, and cashiers) and being forced to witness interactions between unhappy couples.
This all illustrates the film’s interest in drama but fails in its recapitulation of the comic elements. Much like last year’s Queen of Earth, there is a conscious meditation upon the way that living with or adjacent to mental illness is not the perpetually joyless experience that forms the narrative basis of most literary interrogations of the subject. It’s a rarely discussed observation of the human condition, that while some people are comic or tragic figures, most of us have varying percentages of both throughout our lives, and it’s not always easy or indeed necessary to categorize existence in such binary terms. That’s not to mention the other subtle jokes throughout the film; for instance, Cincinatti chili sounds intriguing and horrifying, and I appreciate the pride that the fictional Ohioans take in their bizarre concoction and their zoo. There’s also a lot to unpack about the fact that Stone’s breakdown stream-of-consciousness is interpreted to be critical of soldiers, prompting an attendee to shout about “supporting the troops,” especially combined with the hotelier’s framed George W. Bush portrait in Stone’s dream sequence.
Speaking of which, as the film largely sticks to a realism even if the point of view is warped, the surreality of Stone’s nightmare sequence is worth the ticket price alone, and is what I expect most people will be talking about long after seeing the film. It’s also the most recognizably Kaufman-esque part of the movie; the sea-of-interchangable faces conceit is present throughout and is obviously evocative of the restaurant full of John Malkovitches seen in Being John Malkovitch (and revisited in Adaptation), but Stone’s story doesn’t otherwise lend itself to Kaufman’s more eccentric imagery. In the dream sequence, however, there’s an exploration of space that is reminiscent of the half-floor in the office building from Malkovitch, and Stone’s attempt to escape through a sea of improbably-close desks is pure Kaufman visual flourish. There’s less Synecdoche, New York in the film’s DNA, which may be for the best, as this film feels less like a masturbatory ode about being a misunderstood and self-destructive artist and isn’t also largely impenetrable (individual responses may vary). That having been said, in defense of Synecdoche, none of Anomalisa’s images are as haunting as that film’s perpetually burning house, curling tattooed leaves, or infinitely recursive series of miniaturized metropoli.
Overall, Anomalisa is a great film that draws you into its headspace with compelling imagery. While the plot may not be as much of a technical masterpiece as its cinematography, its potentially played-out story is sufficiently fleshed out (again, no pun intended) that it will likely remain culturally relevant long after the genre of paint-by-numbers privileged-white-guy-versus-ennui has receded back into the ether from which it came. If not a masterpiece, then the film is definitively a cinematic experience that demands to be seen.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond