Cinematic Releases: Anomalisa

Dana Culling reviews the spectacular Anomalisa. 

Just wondering if YOU brought protection?
We come to Anomalisa expecting a love story. But this is not the tale of two people who meet by chance in a hotel and fall in love with each other, and it is neither particularly inspiring nor heartwarming. In fact, Charlie Kaufman’s latest film could best be described as a stop-motion psychological horror movie – an existential tour de force which questions the very threads of reality, and how they connect or sever the bonds people weave between one another.

This is a story about artifice, about intense loneliness and the solipsism inherent in the daily social machinations of a character so insular, so entrenched inside his own mind that his every effort at social interaction becomes painful and steeped in disappointment – precisely because his needs to reach out far outweigh his ability.

The film’s protagonist, Michael Stone, voiced with an aching adeptness by David Thewlis with a strange mix of detachment and pathos, is ostensibly a self-help guru on a mission to spread his wisdom to a conference of sales representatives in 2005 Cincinnati. But underneath the quiet, genteel fa├žade of the competent public speaker is a man driven mad by his own alienation from everyone around him; he is an island in a sea of voices which all sound alike – and, indeed, all belong to Tom Noonan, who voices every other character regardless of age or gender. All of Michael’s social exchanges are filtered through his aloofness; it is not until he hears a different voice that he begins to crumble inwardly in a truly frightening way.

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This voice belongs to Lisa, expressed with a charming, ordinary awkwardness by Jennifer Jason Leigh. She represents an otherness that refreshes Michael’s hopes, but what he tells himself – and Lisa– is love, only amounts to an illustration in the very ways he has come to rely on his barriers to push other people away. The closer he comes to something truly extraordinary with Lisa, the deeper she seems to begin to sink into his own solitary actuality.

Can't you see I'm crying
clay tears over here?

The use of puppet animation in this film is nothing short of symbolic brilliance; the farther into Michael Stone’s mind we reach, the more obvious it becomes that this is a man who doesn’t feel human, and doesn’t really see the rest of the people around him as being part of their own stories. He has distanced himself nearly completely from everyone; his mental soliloquies play out like a series of masks on a mannequin, and Lisa’s is the only voice Michael truly hears.

Lisa herself is an ‘anomaly’, simply because she is herself – and, as such, is the perfect example of why Michael has failed to find happiness in his marriage or with his young son, or even in his feeble attempt to reconnect with his old flame. Michael is, in essence, a puppet controlled by no one, isolated in a world full of living dolls and meaningless voices. He is stuck inside his own reality, unable to find human connection because he has made himself so thoroughly inaccessible that his loneliness drives him to nearly complete self-containment.

Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa is both a cerebral take on the solitude of the terribly lonely and an emotional ode to the painfully ordinary. It celebrates the uniformity of small gestures, even as it drives a wedge between grander hopes. In the vein of Sartre or Camus, it pits the subjective against the outside world and grants us the sort of brutally beautiful mortal terror one does not often find in a world populated by puppets.


-Dana Culling