My immediate response to Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa was one of wonder, in the same way I found Wallace and Gromit fascinating 20 years ago. Anomalisa is a visual playground, and I found myself getting swept up in the small details of the claymation. Michael’s hotel room, for example, was such an accurate representation that I almost wanted a behind the scenes tour to compare it to my own last hotel stay. The thermostat on the wall, the placement of the desk. I swear I was just in that room. I think it was the juxtaposition of this hyper-reality with the distorted features of the people that inhabited it that was so intriguing, or begged more questioning. Michael, and everyone else he encounters, appear mostly normal except for one small glitch; their faces appear to be pieced together like puppets. There is a visible line around their foreheads and jaws, as if their faces are snapped on.
The movie is set in a bleak version of Cincinnati, where Michael is visiting to lecture at some type of professional seminar on customer service, a topic of which he is a bit of a renowned guru. As Michael arrives in Cincinnati and interacts with more people, it becomes clear that everyone, as we understand them through Michael, is embodied by the same voice. For the sake of clarity, in terms of the movie this means that they are voiced by the same person. Male, female, young, old. Everyone sounds the same, or at least until Lisa, later affectionately nicknamed Anomalisa, makes her entrance.
Michael’s professional association aside, we know that he is married with a son, and as the movie opens he is reading an angry letter from a past lover, though 10 years have elapsed from the time the letter was written to the point at which we are entering his life. In the letter we hear his ex-girlfriend, Bella, berating him for abruptly leaving their relationship. Despite this introduction, Michael gets to his hotel room and whips out the phone book to give her a call. (Oh, nostalgia for phone books!) Once they meet up in the hotel bar his motivation reveals itself; he wants some understanding of what happened between them. From her perspective it is simply that he changed, went cold, and left with no explanation.
Anomalisa’s entrance is jarring. He hears her voice from afar and starts shaking, those pieces of his face shaking loose as he literally becomes undone by her. She is starstruck by him, being at the hotel herself to attend the seminar he’s giving, and after a few rounds of drinks they end up back in his hotel room, where they are swept up in a mutual, mystical bond. They make love, she spends the night, and then over breakfast reality sets in. As Michael plots their future together (he’ll leave his wife, they’ll live together in L.A., where he is based), he criticizes her for hitting her fork against her teeth while she eats and then for talking with a mouthful of eggs. As this is happening she acquires a duel voice, the unique voice we heard previously, and the same monotone voice that is characteristic of everyone else heard on top of each other. At this point he starts to breakdown, and we watch him breakdown through his presentation all the way home where he confronts his wife. “Who are you really?” he asks, to which she replies “Jesus, Michael. Who are any of us? How would you answer that question.”
I don’t think this movie was about depression, though clearly Michael lives under a grey blanket. In some ways he is highly functional, like we imagine he is in his professional life, but he seems disconnected from everyone, or can’t see anyone else as individual. Is this why he is able to succeed in customer service? He treats everyone the same because that’s how they sound to him, so his job is simplified in only needing one approach. Anomalisa felt like more of a statement about how it feels to settle and age. Don’t we become more disconnected? Friendships are much harder to come by in adulthood, it is difficult to expand beyond our own daily routines. If Michael is a sought after speaker, his life of travel would put him him places, in front of a lot of people, without really being anywhere or with anyone for that isolated day or two.
I’ve also been pondering his marriage and family. When Michael returns home to his wife and son, he is greeted by a surprise party his wife has organized for him. But instead of expressing his gratitude, he questions her existence, as I already mentioned. At what point did he lose his wife too? Is it simply this routine and his accepted bleakness that have kept them together? He ceremonially buys his son a gift in Cincinnati, asking hotel staff for a nearby toy shop, only to find himself at an adult sex toy shop. Regardless, he buys his son some type of creepy geisha looking mechanical statue, which unsurprisingly does not impress his son. A mechanical gesture from a mechanical man.
The movie is bookended nicely with a letter from Anomalisa, thanking him for their brief time together and suggesting that they will perhaps meet again at a better time. Of course we hear this voice over from the duel Lisa/ubiquitous voice, and not Anomalisa’s unique sound alone, so we know this message will be lost on Michael. She is riding off in a convertible as we hear her writing a very sweet, perhaps too sweet, note to someone who has just abandoned her, and Michael is in the same place he was 10 years ago.
All this aside, this was a stunning work of claymation, and I’d watch it again to only revel in its artistry.
This was very thought provoking, as even after writing this I can still think of a plethora of additional things to write about it, alternative ways to think about, nuances I didn’t touch on. Watch it, be uncomfortable in it, ponder it, and then let’s all watch it again and see what else we come up with.
*Photo credit: by Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48390283