I really love Charlie Kaufman. His work has become some of the most inventive and fascinating films I’ve ever seen in my life. Being John Malkovich and Adaption were life-changing experiences for me, Eternal Sunshine was incredibly poignant and just gets more and more relevant as I get older, Synecdoche, New York is one of the craziest and most interesting movies I’ve ever seen. So I’m a mark for his work. And I was of course incredibly excited when I heard he had a new movie coming out, and I became even more excited when I heard that it was made with stop-motion and every critic whose reviews were being used to sell the movie explained that it was completely unlike anything Kaufman, or anyone else for the matter, had ever done. Which is a pretty damn high bar to set. A lot of movies that were coming out around the end of 2015 were being touted as masterpieces and worth of all sorts of critical and personal acclaim. The Revenant ended up being a bit of a misfire for me, so I was a little worried going into Anomalisa that it had been over-hyped. But you know what? It’s totally not. Anomalisa is certainly one of the best movies that came out in 2015 (even though I only got to see it in 2016) and may be my favorite Kaufman movie now, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it will later be considered among my favorite films period. In the day since I’ve seen the movie it’s been sitting in my mind, percolating and continuing to reveal things about itself to me. I feel like Eternal Sunshine this may be a movie that will just get better and better to me as I age.
The story revolves around Michael Stone (David Thewlis) a man who writes books about customer service and is a motivational speaker for employees of big companies. He’s in a crumbling marriage and has a son that he doesn’t connect to, and is on a business trip to Cincinnati where he’s going to give a lecture. We learn that a former love of his, who he royally hurt when he bailed on their relationship, lives in Cincinnati, and he’s contemplating visiting her. Oh, and we also learn that every human being he’s ever met, regardless of age or gender, have the same voice to him (MVP of the movie Tom Noonan). Every person, even singers in music, sound exactly the same, and he’s apparently wasted his life trying to find someone special. He threw away his relationship with the woman in Cincinnati because he decided she wasn’t his soul mate, because she sounded like everyone else, and he’s clearly thinking about leaving his current wife. So Michael’s life isn’t going great.
He gets to the hotel and awkwardly sits around, eating room service and drinking from the mini-bar until he builds up enough courage to call the woman whose heart he broke. She’s incredibly weirded out by the call, and ends up getting furious at him as his call brings up all the damage he did to her. It seems like their relationship was very serious, maybe even leading to marriage, before he just bailed out of nowhere. And here he is, calling her and telling her that he’s married and has a kid, right as she’s gotten out of yet another relationship. But he manages to convince her to come see him at the hotel bar, and against her better judgement, she does. And he’s almost immediately too much for her. He rambles about their relationship, desperate to see if she thought he changed her at all, and even ends up kind of implying he wants to sleep with her. She gets pissed and leaves, which leads to him getting very drunk and wandering the streets. He finds a sex toy store and ends up having a weird experience before buying some weird antique Japanese Geisha toy. He then drunkenly stumbles back to the hotel, and after taking a shower and getting ready for bed, the unthinkable happens. He hears a voice out in the hall that’s not Tom Noonan. He runs out into the hall and begin banging on doors, trying to find the woman whose voice he heard. And he finally does, and it just happens that they’re two women who are here to listen to his lecture, and are big fans of his. So he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) a woman who works at a packaged food distribution center and who has an odd scar on her face. She’s self-conscious, awkward, and seems like kind of a boring person. But she has a voice. And that’s enough to make Michael interested.
So Michael invites Lisa and her coworker whose with her and the three go down to the bar. They have a weird conversation where they awkwardly talk about work and how much they love his book. Michael pretty obviously only cares about Lisa, and is fascinated with her, mainly because of the voice. He does everything he can to get her to talk more, just thrilled to hear another person’s voice. So they get all tipsy and end up going back to their rooms. And just as Lisa is about to slip away from him, Michael asks her to his room for a nightcap, just to keep talking with her. So she comes in and the two start talking again. Lisa starts telling Michael all about her different wishes and dreams, pretty much anything she can think of, because he just keeps goading her into talking more. And slowly but surely Michael starts to decide that he’s in love with Lisa and that she’s the perfect person for him. Michael has believed his whole life that there’s one magical person who was meant to be his soul-mate, and has never found that. So he assumes, because Lisa has a different voice, she must be the person for him. And because he’s manipulative and she’s vulnerable, he ends up convincing her that they should sleep together. They end up falling asleep in each others arms, and Michael has an incredibly goofy and trippy nightmare where he gets assaulted by everyone with the Voice, them telling him not to be with Lisa. But he wakes up the next morning, and has decided that he can’t let this anomaly get away from him, and ends up telling Lisa that he will leave his wife and son to be with her. Lisa is oddly on board with this, and the two begin talking about their life together. And as they do, Michael starts noticing things about Lisa that he hadn’t in the hour they spent together the night before. And these little things start to annoy him, since it makes her a real person and not this ideal that he had thought she was. And wouldn’t you know, as soon as she starts to become a real person her voice starts to fade away and become Tom Noonan. So with the knowledge that he may have ruined his “soul mate,” he heads out to do his lecture. And it doesn’t go very well. He struggles to give his lecture, and pretty much has a nervous breakdown while trying to get through it, panicking over the fear that the may have made a terrible mistake. And in the end, he bails on Lisa just like he bails on everything else, and heads back home to the wife he’s not sure he loves, and the son he struggles to connect with while giving him the weird Geisha toy.
This movie is wonderful. It’s real, human, heart-breaking, and truly devastating. The ennui and just general apathy that Michael feels towards life is incredibly relatable, because I don’t think there’s a person alive who hasn’t felt like they’re just going through the motions. And frankly, the idea to make this movie with stop-motion puppets to show people who are just moving through life as if they have no control over themselves is brilliant. Plus the puppetry is amazing, and reached points where I really forgot I was watching puppets I was so engrossed in the story. Michael and Lisa are both very tragic characters, each just trying to find an iota of happiness in their existence. But the real draw is Michael and his eternal quest to find a soul-mate, and the fact that that practically makes him the villain of the movie. We see that Michael is obsessed with finding the perfect person, and that it’s blinded him his entire life. He’s had several relationships that he even admits were great, but because they weren’t some perfect piece of Hollywood romance, he bailed on them, convinced that there will be something more. He doesn’t accept the fact that there really isn’t such a thing as love at first sight, or true love. Love isn’t some mystical thing that is only destined to have you be with one person. It’s something that needs to be worked on, and takes effort. But that isn’t something that Michael can accept, he’s convinced that there’s a woman out there who is literally perfect, everything he could ever want, and all he has to do is find her. So he’s always mentally one foot out the door with every relationship, fully prepared to bail at any time to chase a new possibility. So when he actually finds a woman who is different, illustrated with the genius mechanic of everyone sounding the same, he’s thrilled. But lo and behold, she isn’t actually perfect. He tries his best to mold her into the perfect person for him, but realizes that when he tinkers with who she is, she’s no longer perfect, and becomes just another person. He led to her undoing. So of course, instead of trying to work with Lisa, accept her faults and his own, and try to make a real relationship, he runs. Michael Stone’s life has been ruined by his inability to be happy with what he has, he’s always looking for something better than what he has right now. And that’s tragic. Yeah, Michael isn’t a good guy, he cheats on his wife and completely plays with women’s emotions in the movie, but you still can’t help but feel bad for the guy. Because when it comes right down to it, he didn’t seem to learn anything. I didn’t get the feeling that Michael had any sort of epiphany by the end of the movie, and that he would learn to appreciate his wife and his life. I feel like he’s just going to keep being sullen, and if anything this encounter with Lisa may have reinforced his idiotic notion that there’s someone perfect for him. Because now he knows what to look for. Yeah, things didn’t work with Lisa, but he may be close now. I also feel bad for Lisa, but by the end of the movie I felt like she was incredibly resilient, and she wasn’t going to let this weird encounter ruin her life. She may never be truly happy, but so many people are never truly happy in the real world. She’s content. Michael on the other hand is probably only going to get worse, all because he can’t accept that his life is good, so he’ll eternally be searching for something better. Which is tremendously depressing.
This movie was gorgeous and just all around wonderful. The puppetry and animation were wonderful, and truly some of the most expressive and delicate acting I’ve seen all year. I think that’s in large part to using the skills of the wonderful Dino Stamatopoulus, who is a master at puppetry. And the acting is just wonderful. David Thewlis delivers a hell of performance for Michael, Jennifer Jason Leigh makes Lisa a very real and vulnerable character in the short time we’re with her, and Tom Noonan knocks it out of the park playing literally every other person Michael encounters. But really, in the end, it’s that story, and that incredibly powerful message that permeates it. Charlie Kaufman has made a masterpiece that will really stick hard into anyone who has ever wondered if there was a better life waiting out there for them, and really shines a light on how dangerous and harmful that notion can be. It’s gorgeous, wonderfully crafted, and has the potential to really open some old wounds, or even create some new ones, which is really what true art should do.
Anomalisa was written by Charlie Kaufman, directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, and was released by Paramount Pictures, 2015.
Categories: Reel Talk