I’m slightly disappointed in Charlie Kaufman. Okay, more than a little. I feel that he is a much better writer than Anomalisa would have you believe. Perhaps I should replace the word better with socially conscious. He is a good writer, there is no disputing that. Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are all brilliantly unique and wildly original. So too is Anomalisa, Kaufman’s latest foray into subliminal mundanity and his first experience with stop-motion animated puppets. But like his previous film Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman seems to be falling further down the rabbit hole of misanthropic malevolent madness.
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved the film’s production values. It is unlike any animated film you will probably see this year (and might even win the Oscar for best animated feature). Stop-motion is a painstaking process that can take years to film and fine-tune. The idea to make all the characters puppets on top of that is truly Kaufman-esque. The “puppet love” scene between the two principal characters is strikingly and hauntingly beautiful; stark in its realistic brutality. The idea to have the previously underrated and unheralded Tom Noonan voice every character except Michael and Lisa adds a certain vivid poignancy to Michael’s delusions. Even Carter Burwell’s score was extremely well done. The cinematography of Joe Passerelli is unlike anything you would see or expect from an animated film.
And yet, for all it’s visual beauty, a sinister plot lies in wait. Percolating beneath Michael’s genetically-enigeered face are scenes of horror, shock and moral outrage. We come face-to-face, or rather face-to-puppet, with a brilliant but quietly self-loathing genius who seems to be on the verge of a murderous spree driven by his outrageous, self-righteous and creepy paranoia. All that is inherently fine. I don’t need, or want, every character in every movie I see to likeable and/or sympathetic. Variety is great. I don’t even need them to achieve redemption in the end. But for Michael Stone, the film’s amoral and ignorant anti-hero he sets out to prove himself in all the wrong ways.
But perhaps my biggest gripe with the film was Lisa, the anomaly in Michael’s life, and whose name inspired the title of the film. Kaufman seems up to set up Michael as a character who has treated women quite poorly in the past, as evidenced by a phone call he receives in the opening scene, from a woman who curses him for his moral failings and treatment of her. Later on, when he meets one of his exes in a bar, he doesn’t seem all that sorry for walking out on her and almost immediately tries to hook up with her. Now maybe it’s because he doesn’t know how to approach and talk to women (lord knows I have that problem), but the fact that he is married with child and has had multiple long-term relationships in the past, is an indicator that he has at least, had some success in that regard.
Enter Lisa. After overhearing female guests in his head – or so we think, you never know where your reality lies with Kaufman – he proceeds to knock on every door of his floor, trying to put a face to voice that may or may not exist. Does it have the attitude of “Im going to bring to someone back with me?”. Not necessarily, but that’s how it ends up. When our two characters finally meet, along with Lisa’a friend, Emily, they end up getting drunk in the hotel bar. Naturally, Michael wants Lisa to come back to his room, and, with minimal prodding from Emily, off they go. All fine so far. And then craziness.
I find it a bit odd that the one female who stands out for Michael is a significantly younger waif with little-to-no self-esteem or confidence in her ability to be “chosen” by men. As my film-viewing partner for the night described her, she is a “doormat”. And the viewing public, especially women, especially young women, are sick of seeing female characters being portrayed as doormats. Plus, Charlie Kaufman knows to write powerful, strong female characters as evidenced by both Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. That’s why the character of Lisa felt so cringingly in-authentic. But that’s not even the worst part.
Although the sex scene was beautifully done, it could come across to some (and did for my friend) as date-rapey. The subtle ways in which Michael seduces and convinces Lisa to sleep with him are sure to fill many progressive-thinking millennials with fuming rage. Plus, the film makes it quite clear, that Michael and his wife most certainly do not have an open marriage. It’s true that Michael probably isn’t happy with his home life (or professional one) – though most of the male leads in Kaufman films border on severely depressed – his having an affair certainly garners him no sympathy.
Finally, the movie has no resolution. It just ends. There is never a reason given for why anything happened, Michael goes back home, to his supportive wife and son and feels exactly the same as he did in the beginning, even though we had just seen him pseudo-propose to his fling. My friend opined that the final scene of Lisa reading her love letter to Michael while her and Emily drive off, seemed like a token add-on.
Now, there is always a deeper meaning with any Kaufman project, but unless you’re wildly philosophical and wildly intellectually curious you might not pick up on it. Anomalisa is no different. The name of the hotel in the movie is The Fregoli. Kaufman originally wrote the film (and the play uno which it was based) under the name Frances Fregoli. Connection? Obviously. A quick search reveals that Fregoli delusion is “a delusional belief that different people are in fact a single person who changes appearance or is in disguise. ” It is also often paranoid in nature and is related to face perception. Kaufman clearly knew this, and so, in that regard, all the production aspects of the film make sense. It is why all the characters look and sound the same. I’m not sure if it can be used as an excuse for Michael’s actions though.
It is hard to be so critical of Charlie Kaufman, as he is a filmmaker I truly admire, especially as a writer. I feel that his first films are his strongest and perhaps that he is a better writer than he is a director. The man did win an Oscars for his words. But I suppose in being critical, we can appreciate what we admire about a person, at least in regards to a specific thing. In the case of a writer, it is his body of work. Anomalisa is being hailed as the movie of the year. Indeed, it will probably win awards based on its visual beauty. And I agree that it should. But there are better-written films out there. Ageism, sexism and a host of other inequalities are still rampant in Hollywood. Though this by no means was a Hollywood film (it did receive funding from 1100 Kickstarter supporters after all), it definitely felt old-fashioned in the way in presented its story. Which is unfortunate, given what Kaufman has showed us in the past. I think if he had given the audience a reason perhaps I could have sympathized with Michael’s motives more.
Nevertheless, Tom Noonan does deserve recognition for his work in this film. Every voice is the same, yet subtly different – whether in pitch, tone, or timbre. He voiced all the women too – except for Lisa. Both David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh gave great vocal performances as well, and I don’t fault them at all. So, while I applaud Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson, for their visual mastery; the ideas presented in the film were rather dull. Kaufman is a gifted writer, let’s hope he shows it again.