Anomalisa

February 4, 2016
Charlie Kaufman's Stop Motion 'Anomalisa' (2015)
Charlie Kaufman's Stop Motion 'Anomalisa' (2015)

It gets progressively harder to argue with Ecclesiastes 1:9: “there is no new thing under the sun”, but Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson have shaken my faith, with Anomalisa. It is the story of a dour, middle-aged Englishman named Michael Stone who has lived in the United States for many years without losing his accent.

Michael is an inspirational speaker, but seems to be terminally depressed, almost on the verge of a breakdown. He flies from his home in the west coast to Cincinnati, checks into a swanky hotel, the Al Fregola, and orders room service. Despondently he looks at the speech he will be giving the next day.

By the way, Michael is also a puppet, voiced by David Thewlis.

One would never guess from his demeanour, but Michael enjoys legendary status in the field of customer service, as author of the best-seller, How May I Help You Help Them? Other characters in the film are thrilled to meet him. They credit his book with raising productivity by 90 percent.

Michael feels no reciprocal excitement. Almost everyone in this story has the same face and the same voice. The list includes the taxi driver, the hotel clerk, the bellboy, the waitress, even his own wife and son, to whom he speaks on the telephone. When he rings an old girlfriend and suggests they meet for a drink, she turns out to have the same face and voice as everyone else. That voice belongs to Tom Noonan, who plays multitudes in this film, even overlaying background chatter in the hotel restaurant.

In the course of a long, miserable evening, Michael knocks on another hotel room door, and meets two women from Akron, who have come to listen to his speech. Emily is the flirtatious one, while Lisa is frumpy and shy, self-conscious about a scar on the side of her face. What fires Michael’s dulled senses is the fact that Lisa – voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh – seems to be the only other person who looks and sounds different. She may not be a raving beauty, but she is an anomaly in a sea of clones – Anomalisa.

Kaufman’s hidden joke revolves around Fregoli Delusion – a syndrome in which a sufferer believes that a person or persons around them are wearing disguises. In this mindset a stranger is only someone you know, who is concealing their true identity.

This is not the complete explanation for Michael’s predicament. He feels like the odd man out in a mechanised society in which people speak in platitudes and clichés – in Cincinnati you have to try the chili, and check out the zoo. They go through empty routines with robot-like efficiency. As the author of a customer service manual he has contributed to this dehumanised environment, and is now filled with regrets. Beyond this, he has personal issues, including a history of fleeing relationships. The Marxists would see Michael as a study in alienation.

We’ve been here before with Kaufman, in his script for Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich (1999), in which everyone was a Malkovich. The belief that one is the only thinking, imaginative being in a community of clones might almost be called Kaufman’s Syndrome. A less flattering term is “solipsism”.

There is no attempt to make the puppets completely life-like. They all have a big line across their faces, where the mask is attached. The same applies to Michael and Lisa, even though they are the film’s only individuals. During a dream sequence, Michael’s face actually falls off.

If you’ve always wanted to see a movie in which a middle aged puppet takes a pee and a shower, and engages in an awkward bout of sexual intercourse, then look no further. One watches in a kind of daze, as this fumbling love story unfolds. Michael is passionate about Lisa’s voice, and even her facial scar. He wants to hear her sing, and she obliges with an accapella version of Cindy Lauper’s Girls Just Want to Have Fun, full of sadness, loneliness and insecurity. Then she sings it again in Italian.

When Lisa intones “I want to be the one who walks in the sun”, viewers will be reaching for their handkerchiefs. It’s the only hint of sunlight in a world that has become a prison cell.

Anomalisa
Directed by Duke Johnson & Charlie Kaufman
Written by Charlie Kaufman, after his own play
Starring David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan
USA, rated MA 15+, 90 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 6th February, 2016.