Prior to Anomalisa, I had seen three Charlie Kaufman films—Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Human Nature—the latter two of which I saw after I started doing these essays and so have written about.
All three are definitely weird and inventive. I liked Human Nature only modestly, Being John Malkovich more than Human Nature, and Adaptation clearly the most of the three.
Anomalisa is one of those movies that I have trouble deciding if I like it and how much while I’m watching it and in the immediate aftermath, only really deciding after it has had time to sink in. The bulk of such movies I end up liking, as the very fact that they are unconventional enough to leave me uncertain how to respond to them, and inspire me to think more about them in order to decide how to assess them, generally means that they are thought-provoking and interesting. The more I consider Anomalisa, the more I see it following this same pattern.
I’m really not at all sure that I “get” Anomalisa. It’s one of those highly symbolic, ambiguous films, the kind of film (book, etc.) I generally struggle with, uncertain what the filmmaker is trying to say.
But let me leave that aside for the moment and start with elements of the film that I am more confident of and better able to articulate my thoughts on. Then I’ll come back to the “meaning” stuff.
Anomalisa is stop-action puppet animated. What’s delightfully ironic, and startling in its way, is how extraordinarily realistic it is. It’s like with animation, they had a greater control of facial expressions and body language, precisely where to position people and things, what angle to shoot from, what elements to include or not include in a shot, etc., and they chose to take advantage of that.
The layout of a hotel room, the art on the walls, the outfit a hotel waitress would wear, etc. all look exactly as they should. I mean, I’m sure in a regular movie they often get all that kind of stuff right also, but somehow the realism is more striking here.
Granted, motion is off. When a character is walking or running, it’s all herky jerky and unnatural. Ice cubes cascading from a hotel ice machine look oddly two dimensional. But other than motion, it’s amazing how real this movie is.
The realism extends beyond just getting the visual details right. Anomalisa also violates various movie conventions—both in terms of what is shown and how it’s shown—that probably most viewers don’t even consciously realize routinely stray from reality.
This includes scenes of things that happen in life that would normally be too mundane or too risqué or just gross to put in a movie. In Anomalisa you’ll get the odd opportunity to see a puppet urinate. A man—with the kind of imperfect middle-aged body not often seen in a film, and seen in full, including penis—struggles with the hot and cold water of a hotel shower, exactly as it would happen in real life.
But the topper is that Anomalisa contains the single most realistic sex scene I have ever seen in a movie. Yes, sex between a couple of puppets looks more real than sex in a regular movie between human beings, and it’s not even close.
If I had to try to explain to someone from another planet what sex was like—at least what it was like for me the majority of times I was fortunate enough to experience it—or maybe to a young person who had never had sex, or to some futuristic researcher who wanted to know about life back in the olden days of my time, I would show them this scene over any scene in any conventional movie I’ve watched, or for that matter any pornographic movie I’ve watched.
I assume most people are conscious of how unreal pornographic sex is compared to real life sex, but in its own way regular movie sex is probably just as far off. (Although this is all assuming most sex is like what I’ve experienced; maybe I’m the oddball and most people have sex like in Hollywood movies, with me and Charlie Kaufman and a few others being exceptions.) But Anomalisa nails it. What people say, the clumsiness, the joy, the coordination and lack of coordination, the giggles, the self-consciousness, the anticipating or failing to anticipate what is best to do next—all the glorious imperfection—feels so real as to provoke laughs and cringes of recognition. For that matter, even the before and after stuff—the seduction, the uncertainty of whether sex is going to happen at all, etc.—is dead on.
So even aside from a story, or any symbolic value or moral or whatever, this is already a remarkable movie. I don’t know that the novelty of its unconventional, bizarrely realistic use of puppet animation is enough by itself to warrant the film a thumbs up, but it’s certainly noteworthy.
So now let me turn to the matter of what we’re supposed to take from this movie, beyond its technical uniqueness. It’s probably best to begin by saying a little more about the story, about just what it is the movie depicts.
The protagonist of Anomalisa is Michael Stone, a successful author and public speaker on the topic of customer service. He’s British, but now lives in Los Angeles with his wife and young son. He spends a lot of time flying around the country giving presentations to corporate types. He’s something of a mini-celebrity in that world. Virtually the entirety of Anomalisa takes place on one of his trips to Cincinnati.
Stone is experiencing a midlife crisis. He is bored, anxious, depressed, and at times bordering on a nervous breakdown. As he experiences the world, everyone has basically the same face and the same voice, including his wife and son.
At times he’s resigned to that miserable sameness, and at times he’s desperate to escape it. His primary escape seems to be sexual affairs on the road, though it’s not clear if it’s sustained affairs, one-night stands, or sometimes one and sometimes the other, nor is it clear if it’s something he has indulged in only two or three times over the years or engages in routinely in each new city.
When he comes across one of the very, very small minority of people he doesn’t perceive as being the same as the others, it awakens him and causes a craving in him to connect with that person. This is evidently how his philandering comes about. It’s really not a particularly predatory or manipulative thing on his part; if anything he is more convinced than the woman that this is something special, indeed something necessary to his sanity, and not just a night of physical pleasure. Plus, he is regretful, rather than triumphant or indifferent, when he realizes that his behavior has hurt one of these women, again indicating that he’s not taking a particularly “conquest” attitude into these encounters.
In Cincinnati, he both tries to rekindle a former such connection, and to pursue a new one. The overall feeling, though, is that he cannot escape from his depression, that his philandering gets his hopes up more than it satisfies them. He is a supremely sad figure.
So what does it mean that he is a customer service guru? Presumably it’s not just some random characteristic, but is essential to the message of the film. (But then again, is everything? Is there a reason he’s British, for instance?)
I would think it has something to do with the creepy corporate culture of choosing modes of interaction based on profitability rather than any human factor, with the implication being that immersing himself in that world has destroyed him. But the ugliness and conformity of capitalist practices like this is not something the film emphasizes, at least not in any obvious way. The little bit we hear of what he actually teaches in his talks is pretty bland if not positive stuff about being nice to people, having empathy, treating them as individuals, etc.
I guess you could say that given the context, implicitly what he’s really teaching is to feign these things with the motive of getting money from people, and that that’s what’s so creepy and soul-destroying about it, but I feel like the farther I go in that interpretive direction the more I’m just seeing my own beliefs and values in the movie, whether they are really there or not.
Why does his depression and dissatisfaction with life manifest itself in this weird delusion of perceiving everyone as having the same face and the same voice? I’m not sure.
Perhaps there are other elements in the film that are clues. There’s a dream sequence in which all these clonelike folks idolize him, declare their love for him, and offer themselves to him sexually, even more than happens to him in real life, and it horrifies him. One of the few deviations from realism is that the puppet characters in the movie all have odd lines or creases in their face that look like they are wearing masks or something, and in that same dream sequence the front of one of their faces comes off and reveals robot-type gears and such underneath.
So is he tortured by a realization that the more people follow his advice the more conformist everyone will be and the fewer genuine individuals there will be? Does he feel guilty about his role in bringing about such a world, and as a result is ambivalent about if not nauseated by people’s lauding him for it? Or am I again smuggling my own values and what appalls me about corporate culture’s influence on society into my interpretation of the film?
At one point he breaks down and goes on a mini-political rant in a situation where it is wholly inappropriate. I don’t think the movie is political in that sense though, as it’s just two or three sentences and isn’t followed up in any way. The incident seems to be more of a frantic protest against the numbing phoniness of propriety, like it would have fit just as well in that scene for him to have mooned the people he was speaking to as to yell at them that the government is waging an illegal war.
By the way, the stranger he falls for—Lisa, his main hope for breaking free of his ennui in this movie—is made into someone who lacks just about anything that would give her high, or even mediocre, dating market value. Physically she is plain, with some kind of burn scar or something marring part of her face. She is self-conscious, inhibited, and totally lacking in self-confidence. She has a bland, nothing job, and seemingly a bland, nothing life. She is mediocre in intellect. She has very little relationship or sexual experience. Granted, she lacks kids or, as far as we know, STDs, so I guess she wouldn’t rank at the very bottom in terms of dating market value, but that’s about it.
She is Adrian from Rocky, only worse.
Is it her very simplicity and ordinariness that makes her extraordinary in Stone’s eyes? Does her lack of conventional desirability enable her to retain some genuine, ingenuous, unspoiled, diamond-in-the-rough, quality that only he can see?
As I continue to reflect on this film, I still can’t say with much confidence just what is wrong with Stone or what his problem is supposed to symbolize more broadly.
Perhaps there is no clear answer to that. Perhaps—and here again the movie would reflect real life—it’s not something simple enough that you can put your finger on and articulate exactly. It may be that what ails Stone, and what the film is saying ails modern society or whatever, involves many different things, some of which can be identified more readily than others, but in total crush the spirit.
I mean, isn’t that more typical when a person is depressed, or a society is socially diseased? A psychiatrist or social commentator or whatever might be able to offer a vague diagnosis of part of the problem, but a lot it will remain too complex, uncertain, or mysterious to put into words.
I may not totally “get” what’s up with Stone or what this movie is trying to convey, but I have a general sense that both involve a profound sadness.
And even if I’m not as good as another viewer might be in figuring out the forest of this movie, there are certainly many trees I appreciated. There are many little moments of sharp humor. There are touching moments. There are all those surprisingly realistic elements. (I singled out the sex scene as one I would show an alien who wanted to know what sex is like; I would also choose scenes from this movie over any other I can think of to convey to such an alien just what it’s like to travel alone and stay in the same kind of hotel room you’ve stayed in dozens or hundreds of times before.)
Anomalisa is certainly worth seeing. I think it’s one of those films that different people will experience very differently. I still haven’t figured out just what I make of it, but I appreciate it for inspiring me to try.