A truly great film works on multiple levels. With each viewing you notice newness within the frame that you had not seen before. This is not to say that great films need be complicated. Anomalisa itself is quite simple, but its beauty is in its simplicity.
The latest film by Charlie Kaufman, with co-director Duke Johnson, is stop-motion animation using incredibly lifelike puppets. Appreciating Anomalisa is first marveling at the technicality of the animation. I spent equal times wondering how they were able to get the puppets to be so representative of humans and reminding myself that they were not real actors. Were Anomalisa being judged on its technical merits alone it would be a resounding success.
But beyond the practicality of the film there is a plot that breaks my heart. Arriving into Cincinnati for a routine business trip, Michael Stone (David Thewlis) is overcome with the mundanity of the world. He is not startled or surprised by this; it is more of an acceptance than a realization. He simply floats along through life, living without passion or fervor. He is in town for a sales conference, though he is no salesman. He is an author who writes books to inspire salesmen, which makes him a minor celebrity within the isolated world of the conference hotel. When he runs in to a conference attendee who is unlike everyone he has ever met, suddenly his world is turned upside down. There is excitement and intrigue in his world once again and he will stop at nothing to have her as his own. Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is the only thing that matters to him now.
Lisa is mostly unremarkable. She is not unattractive, or socially inept, but she believes herself to be decidedly ordinary and she is not wrong. She is in town to attend the conference for work but also to get away for the weekend with her friend and coworker. Lisa is swept off her feet by Michael, though hesitantly so. She does idolize him, and is a fan of his writing, but has enough life experience to know that romances like this have no place in her day to day reality.
The crucial magic of Anomalisa is the incredibly relatable characters in this mildly unrelatable scenario. So many films have attempted to capture the banality of modern living, with varying success. Some try satire (Office Space, Joe Versus The Volcano) and some absurdity (Wrong, The Zero Theorem), but they need to go out of their way to visually represent the feeling of numbness you can develop to reality. Anomalisa has perfectly captured this malaise through an auditory trick, but it is far more subtle than any other attempts at portraying boring modernity. Michael has everything he should ever need. He is financially solid, and has created a career niche that fits his particular strengths. He has a loving wife and child back home. He seems to have generally good health too. But even with all of these blessings, he still feels unsatisfied. It is very difficult to create such a well-established character and make his wanting sympathetic, but in Anomalisa they have.
This concern Anomalisa creates for Michael is quite a feat, considering what a terrible person he is. In addition to his lack of appreciation for all that he has, he acts like a self-absorbed jerk for much of the film. He toys with the emotions of an ex-lover (both in present-day and flashback) and he treats Lisa like a woman to worship and put on a pedestal, rather than interact with like another equal human. But through quiet moments alone, and through our relation to his desensitization to joy, we can relate to him. This terrible, privileged character still deserves our attention.
The polar opposite of escapist cinema, Anomalisa instead holds a cold mirror up to our modern lives and makes us take a long look into our bleakness. It is not easy to do, but perhaps the soul searching could inspire you to avoid becoming even a teeny bit like Michael. The marionette puppets show more humanity than many other live actors in the theater today, and they make us feel the humanity of the characters without having any warm flesh of their own. A brilliant, if disheartening look at ourselves, Anomalisa is wonderful.
Directors: Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson
Jennifer Jason Leigh
Release Date: January 8, 2016
Film Length: 90 minutes
Distributor: Paramount Pictures