Anomalisa is Charlie Kaufman’s greatest work because it most embraces the curious contradiction that rests firmly at the heart of his career.
The films of the writer/director are often bizarre or strange in their ideas or constructions, always with some conceit or idea that makes the film an intellectual exercise, such as the memory reconstruction of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the metanarrative of Adaptation or the tragic backstage story of Synecdoche, New York. Yet Kaufman’s goal is always to pull back the layers of the human mind and heart and to expose some deeply painful truths about people.
And so it is thanks to an execution that is perhaps his most bizarre that Anomalisa finds the most human and deeply personal story Kaufman has told yet. And it is thanks to that most human story that the execution and style of Anomalisa is his most powerful yet.
On its surface, it seems as though Anomalisa has no reason to be told as an animated film. It’s remarkably simple and well-trod story. Michael Stone (David Thewlis) is a motivational business speaker struggling with disaffection in his life. On a business trip, he seeks to reconnect with an old girlfriend but meets Lisa Hesselman (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an eccentric woman whom he instantly falls in love with.
Yet, it isn’t quite that simple, and this is where the beautiful stop-motion puppetry of the film comes into effect. See, the whole of the film is exclusively from the perspective of Michael, who has become completely incapable of connecting with others. As such, the entire world is comprised of people with the same face and the same voice (Tom Noonan). The connection he has with Lisa is because she’s the first to break through and appear as something unique in that world.
Anomalisa quickly reveals that there’s absolutely no way this could be told but as an animated film. It’s one of the most perfect meldings of form and function that I’ve ever seen; every frame reveals the increasing heartbreak this story wants to tell, every scene puts you perfectly inside the head of Michael Stone.
Now, it must be understood that the head of Michael Stone is a dark place. Anomalisa is a heartbreaking film, but it is heartbreaking not out of empathy, but out of observation. The tendency with many watching this film is going to be to sympathize with Michael.
Partially, that will be because of the animation. The puppets, developed with the help of co-director Duke Johnson, famous for his collaboration on the Community animated Christmas specials, are remarkably expressive and alive. The mannered jerkiness of stop-motion somehow makes the puppets even more gorgeous to look at and interact with. It’s the clash between realism and artifice that helps it become beautiful animation, not just an attempt to replicate live action. It helps you become lost in another world, to go to a place in someone’s head, not just images on the screen.
And it will also be because of the voice performances. Obviously, the amazingly sympathetic resignation that Thewlis gives Michael allows a great deal of understanding. And Tom Noonan’s shockingly off-putting monotone makes the world around him seem as hostile as Michael perceives it.
But the most potent character is Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Lisa. She projects a true warmth and depth wrapped in eccentricity. There’s a reality to her performance, something eminently true about the person that she conveys. It’s easy to understand why someone might fall in love with her.
Yet, the film makes it clear how easy she is to fall in love with without indulging in the route that it so easily could have traveled, and is in fact more than willing to refute. The appearance of Lisa makes her seem like she so quickly falls into the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, an all-too-common film trope that creates a female character only designed to improve the life of the man whose life she comes into.
Yet, remember earlier that this is a film living explicitly inside Michael’s head. It’s the ambiguities that make this film so wonderful. The film seems to not endorse his view of this woman, his creation of her solely as a way to fix his life. Anomalisa is about our romanticization of male disaffection, and the true sorrow that exists for those who have lost sight of connection of the world around them.
Kaufman isn’t saying this is what the world is. He’s saying the world we see in Anomalisa is how this man views it. And in that is the truest heartbreak of the film. That deeply human sadness of losing the people around you, and for anyone who has seen that in someone, that is what makes this film as powerful as it is.
I’ve seen that all too often. Too many people pulling away from the world and blaming everyone but themselves for the way they feel. Anomalisa understands that. It truly knows the deepest sadness we can feel.
But don’t let me say that the relatability is all given to the sadness of the film. Anomalisa is deeply witty and funny. It even finds joy and happiness and love. There’s a sex scene (that’s right, with the puppets) that feels more authentic than any we’ve seen in film in some time. Anomalisa looks at the world and finds the absolute emotional honesty of it all.
It’s all thanks to the form of this film. It puts you deeply in the head of a character, helps you understand and pulls you away at just the right moment. It’s innovative and wonderful to watch, yet never moves away from its purpose. Nothing about Anomalisa does not serve its central purpose.
Anomalisa is a perfectly formed film, one where every construction is imbued with meaning and purpose. It’s beautiful, relatable, wickedly funny and deeply heartbreaking. It’s the kind of film that I desperately hope to see more of, and that I fully support appearing again and again.
It tore my heart out, in the best possible way.