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Non-Review Review: Anomalisa

This film was (almost) seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2016.

Anomalisa is a heartbreaking tale of isolation and loneliness, an affecting drama about living in a world that feels illusory.

Directed by Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman, from Kaufman’s screenplay adapted from his own stageplay, most of the discussion of Anomalisa has focused upon its unconventional production. The movie was essentially crowdsourced, as the space allocated in the closing credits to the project’s kickstarter backers will attest. However, Anomalisa is also a stop motion production, painstakingly and meticulously filmed using life-like dolls to tell a sad story about adultery and anomie.

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In some respects, this fascination with form makes sense. After all, Anomalisa is a very human and grounded story. Even allowing for the difficulty that Kaufman had fundraising for the project, it would likely have been more practical to realise the story with living performers in a more conventional style. However, the distinctive technique provides a powerful emotional weight to Johnson and Kaufman’s story. The relative banality of the illusion is very much the much the point.

Anomalisa is not so much a story about fantasy as it is about a disconcerting sense of unreality.

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Anomalisa is the story a chance encounter between Michael Stone and Lisa Hesselman. Michael is a motivational speaker visiting Cincinnati to provide a keynote address on customer service. Anomalisa has a great deal of fun with the irony inherent in Michael’s pitch. Michael advocates that every customer must be treated as a unique person, offering a uniformity to their individuality. Coaching customer service representatives about how to engage with the voices on the other end of the phone, Michael is generic in his specificity.

This leads to another of the film’s glorious hooks. Michael has grown so jaded and cynical that he no longer hears people as individuals. Everybody in Michael’s world speaks with the same voice, gamely provided by Tom Noonan. Indeed, some of Anomalisa‘s best gags come from the incongruity of Tom Noonan’s voice. Noonan is the voice of every man, woman and child in Michael’s world; of every actor, actress, choir singer and public service announcement. Indeed, the use of Noonan is one of the wriest gags of the year.

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Whether singing along to Flower Duet from Lakmé or reenacting the climax of My Man Godfrey, Michael cannot escape that single unifying voice for a moment. It is a quintessentially Kaufman touch; it is an existential nightmare that is only hilarious because the audience dare not contemplate the horror of it. Anomalisa has a great deal of fun with the idea, using it to explain and outline Michael’s relationship with the world at large. It is how Michael perceives everything outside himself, as if the tentacles of some infectious subversive monotony.

(Even the design of the puppets alludes to this. The craftmanship on display in Anomalisa is astounding, with great care taken to render the animated characters emotive and expressive. Indeed, even the anatomical detail is remarkable. However, the film takes great care to remind viewers that these puppets are merely puppets; all of the characters have clearly visible seams, as if to illustrate how the inhabitants of Michael’s word are all built from the same basic elements that can be taken apart and reassembled to make something different – if not new.)

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Tom Noonan’s single unifying voice is the world to Michael; it represents everything outside himself, a personification of the universe’s unsettling otherness that would not feel out of place in a tribute to H.P. Lovecraft, where the only boundary that matters is the distinction between “self” and “other.” Of course, Anomalisa renders all of this subjectively. Repeatedly over the course of the film, it is suggested that Michael is in the grip of a mid-life crisis, afraid of being consumed by dull sameness. “It’s boring,” he protests at one point. “It’s all boring.”

That is the beauty of Anomalisa, in how it chooses to render Michael’s fears. To Michael, the world is just as artificial as it is to the viewer. Michael sees his world as hollow and fake, empty and staged. At one point in the film, Michael seems to come close to acknowledging his own existence as a puppet, reaching up as if to remove his own face. The artifice is the entire point of the exercise, with the film comfortably slotting the audience into Michael’s perspective. Michael is aware of the other puppets as the viewer must be.

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Anomalisa finds Michael reflecting on this phenomenon, wondering how or when it happened. Did other people change, or is this part of a change within himself? While staying at his Cincinnati hotel, Michael encounters Lisa. Lisa does not speak with the voice of Tom Noonan, sounding like Jennifer Jason Leigh instead. This makes her a novelty in Michael’s world, an improbability. Indeed, as the punny title of the movie suggests, Lisa is effectively an anomaly to Michael.

There is an element of predictability to how Kaufman maps out the relationship between Michael and Lisa, playing their encounter as an unfolding tragedy. For all that Michael skirts awareness of the unreality of his world, he remains oblivious to the beats of his own particular arc. His greater awareness does not translate to self-awareness. However, this sense of inevitability does not undercut Kaufman’s script. Instead, Anomalisia is even more affecting and powerful for Michael’s powerlessness.

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Kaufman has attracted attention as one of the greatest surrealist writers of his generation, capable of translating goofy high concepts into profound meditations on the human condition that explore grand themes like loneliness and anomie and love. However, this focus on Kaufman’s high concepts often comes at the expense of his skill with smaller elements. For all that his movies play with big ideas, they come alive in their smaller moments. Kaufman’s characters might navigate abstract adventures, but they are always recognisably human.

Anomalisa is a prime example of this, with both Michael and Lisa feeling like fully fleshed out and realised individuals who make a surprisingly touching and meaningful connection. Kaufman has a gift for dialogue to match his fondness for high concepts, and Michael and Lisa forge one of the most organic and human connections in recent memory. Both characters feel like real people, something all the more remarkable for the fact that they are essentially played by lifeless models.

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Anomalisa is an always powerful and frequently hilarious exploration of human isolation. Then again, the laughter helps to hold the despair at bay.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 4

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4 Responses

  1. I missed this review at the time but having seen the film recently had to comment.

    One aspect I initially missed was how aside from Michael and Lisa everyone has not just the same voice but the same face with the same blue eyes – with different hair, sometimes hidden by glasses but always the same, except for one crucial moment.

    It was a very sad film (very funny yes, but I found it sadder) but, and maybe it was just me, I thought the final scene showed a tiny flicker of hope.

    • The ending is interesting.

      I just read it as confirming that the problem is definitely with Michael rather than the world, a very cruel (but very Kaufman-esque) punchline. And you’re right about the sadness. Kaufman is a hilarious writer, but there’s a lot of “laughing so he doesn’t cry” to the humour; at least, that’s how I read it.

  2. Very nice reading, thanks for a very interesting review.

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