Written and co-directed by Charlie Kaufman, Anomalisa is a stop-motion play on the horrifying banality of existence. Overall, I don’t think the film garners it’s hype and 90+ RT rating, and I generally agree with David Edelstein, who writes:
[T]he most vivid portrait of solipsism this side of Kafka, Strindberg, Camus — name your favorite alienated author. But once the surprise of seeing something so miserable depicted with such wit and poetry wears off, you’re left with a nagging ugh, as well as the feeling that this emotional/psychological syndrome isn’t nearly as universal as Kaufman thinks it is…
I’d heard that the original ending of his Eternal Sunshine was bleak and cynical, but the whole movie was leavened by director Michel Gondry — also a solipsist, but a more childlike, romantic one. I wish Anomalisa had a touch of Gondry, that its misery weren’t so complacent. One hundred c.c.’s of undiluted Charlie Kaufman makes you want a transfusion.
The protagonist is one Michael Stone, a married expat Brit living in America who, while on a lecture tour for his successful book about customer service titled “How May I Help You to Help Them?”, is deep into an existential crisis.
Save for one other character in the film — Lisa (the ‘anomalisa’ herself) — everyone else in the film is voiced by veteran character actor Tom Noonan. It quickly becomes apparent this represents how the troubled, conscious, existential soul sees the rest of the world: as a cacophony of indistinguishable voices. “Hell,” Sartre once said, “is other people.”
As Peter Debruge notes in his incisive review of the film:
In “Anomalisa,” an inspirational speaker in crisis checks into Cincinnati’s (fictional) Al Fregoli hotel, named for a delusional condition in which paranoiacs believe that those around them are not who they appear to be, but a single tormentor hiding behind multiple disguises.
Acting as a metaphor, the film’s stop-motion puppetry serves to emphasize the mechanical ‘meat’ and neuronal façade of our physical bodies, as opposed to our (imagined?) conscious ‘selves’, which we intuitively perceive to be detached and apart from our bodies.
The film has parallels with Lost in Translation, Up in the Air, and Kaufman’s previous films (e.g., Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Synecdoche, New York).
In an excellent review of the film in LA Weekly, Amy Nicholson notes:
Charlie Kaufman is a cartographer of the soul. You can picture him hunched over parchment accurately inking each dark river and, off to the side, cautioning that there be dragons.
What makes Kaufman cinema’s best psychoanalyst is a contradiction. He sees people for who we are—hurtful, hopeful, lovely, lonely and dull—and yet believes that The Self is a delusion. His characters are complex and true, but they’re never in control…
If we’re honest, we all have our Michael moments. Kaufman diagnoses humanity, but doesn’t judge. Michael is cold (the last name Stone is no accident) but also scared of his own coldness. “There’s something wrong with me,” Michael confesses to his estranged ex Bella. “It’s boring. Everything’s boring.”
Near a total breakdown, Michael projects his loneliness fueled fantasies for escape onto a conference attendee named Lisa, whom, after immediately falling in ‘love’ with her, he nicknames ‘Anomalisa’.
Peter Debruge again:
Michael invites Lisa for a drink, dragging her friend Emily (Noonan again) along to the hotel bar. He wants to bring her back to his room, where he makes an indecent proposal, and she nearly walks out. And then the ice melts, and they connect — over a Cyndi Lauper song, of all things. Watching them, expect to feel an indescribable mix of affinity and loneliness, as only Kaufman can achieve, that same ache that accompanied “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” or burned alongside Samantha Morton’s smoldering house in “Synecdoche, New York.”
What follows is both beautiful and heartbreaking, and ultimately unforgettable. Kaufman has done it again, writing a deeply flawed male protagonist and a woman who seems so incredibly ideal despite (or perhaps due to) her imperfections, and he’s engineered it so that we fall in love: Michael’s gray and overcast, Lisa just wants to walk in the sun, and for as long as he can make the moment last, she’s the one. The anomaly. The Anomalisa.
At the end of the film, the antique Japanese sex doll that Michael has naively purchased for his son, is strangely beautiful in its pre-engineered qualities which includes a soothing song of intimacy. As Nicholson observes:
How different is Michael the puppet from his purchase? How different are we from him? Kaufman is taking our brains apart and showing us the gears.