Depending on how you reckon Charlie Kaufman’s career, Anomalisa is either his second film (as a director) or his seventh (as a writer). I prefer to count his screenplay credits, because no matter the director, the films Kaufman has written exhibit a consistent temperament, sense of humor, and cinematic method. It’s a rare writer whose vision is so compelling that she or he is able to influence the look and sound of the films based on her or his words. Nora Ephron was that kind of writer, though in a completely different genre. Watching the films she wrote, you can imagine all the characters inhabiting the same romantic world. Charlie Kaufman is that kind of writer too, though his characters all seem to inhabit a psychological plane rather than a physical one.
Anomalisa realizes the psychological state of its main character, a depressed customer service expert named “Michael,” audibly more than visibly. In Michael’s world, every person sounds exactly the same. They are all voiced by the same actor, Tom Noonan, in the same slightly bored, almost monotone cadence. It’s a neat trick, because films rarely use sound, much less dialogue, to this effect. It’s a perfect audiblization of the reality of feeling like life is the same everywhere all the time no matter who you are talking to or what you are doing. If ennui has a voice, it’s’ the voice of “Everyone Else”—as the end titles credit Tom Noonan—in Anomalisa. When Michael suddenly hears the voice of someone else, Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), he hears hope for a change in his life.
Since this is a Charlie Kaufman film, that change is not guaranteed. If Michael finds it, it will be the result of a change in attitude rather than a change in circumstance. In Kaufman’s worlds, the creative process is an opportunity for self-reflection and a chance to approach the world in a different way. Performance is an invitation for authenticity and awakening. His characters don’t always accept that invitation totally, though they do usually make small changes to their lives that promise to be both difficult in the short term and more rewarding in the long run if they have the persistence to see them through.
I realize that’s all very vague. I don’t want to spoil the film for you, and Kaufman’s films are felt as much as they are heard and seen. Suffice it to say that sadness isn’t a negative emotion in Kaufman’s story-worlds. The only negative emotional state is to feel nothing at all.
Oh yeah! I should probably mention that Anomalisa is peopled by puppets. This is a stop-motion animated film. That it took me so long in this review to get to that aspect of the movie is a testament to how real and human these characters feel. That’s another consistence feature of Kaufman’s films. They are packed with exaggerated, eccentric characters who feel more human than the “real people” that populate most films. The presence of stop-motion puppets adds another layer of surreality to Anomalisa, because the filmmakers can use them to visualize Michael’s psychological state in a way that would be difficult with real people. For instance, everyone except Michael and Lisa kind of look alike, which adds to the boring sameness of Michael’s world.
Anomalisa also includes one of the most explicit sexual encounters I’ve ever seen in a movie. Yes, there are puppets performing the sexual acts, but the characters are so fully realized, you forget you are watching puppets, and watching the sex scene feels like you are intruding on a truly intimate moment in these two people’s lives. Up to that point in the film, intimacy between two people seems impossible, so sex becomes as intimate in the film as it is in real life. Looking past the puppets, this sex scene is also the most realistic sex scene I’ve ever seen in a film. The characters are eager and awkward, giving and taking in ways that resonate with my experience of sex. Nothing is sensationalized here. It’s simply two people sharing themselves with each other and receiving what they need in an honest and vulnerable way. Only one aspect of this encounter gives me pause, but I can’t talk about that without spoiling an essential part of the film’s narrative. Actually, this aspect makes me mourn the inherent loneliness of these characters and of all of us all the more. This loneliness doesn’t excuse their actions, but it does prompt me to offer them (and us) more grace.
Ultimately, Anomalisa is a unique, flawed, funny, and heart-breaking film. It’s unlike anything else I’ve seen at the movies in a long time. I think Charlie Kaufman would approve of that statement. I hope so. I am grateful for his work here in Anomalisa. If you have the eyes to see it and the ears to hear it, I hope you will.