What does Charlie Kaufman do to make his films work?
I could describe scenes from his animated Anomalisa and they would sound like the most boring, pretentious scenes imaginable. The studios probably thought so too, which is why Kaufman had to raise funds on Kickstarter. (And, if the credits are any indication, got help from Rick and Morty’s Dan Harmon.)
But this is a mistaken approach. The film is wondrously beautiful even at its most banal. Anomalisa showcases how Kaufman’s films follow their own internal logic that makes the absurd seem perfectly normal. The idea that an entire population would share the same voice seems to be the logical conclusion for Michael Stone’s (David Thewlis) world.
Stone is a motivational speaker and author. He has apparently been very successful giving lectures and writing books about customer service. In fact, the film opens with him flying to Cincinnati to give a speech and checking into one of the nicest hotels in the city. But he hates his existence with a passion.
This is probably because every single person he meets speaks with the voice of Tom Noonan. Every single person. Whether this is one of Michael’s own delusions or whether this is how reality is in Michael’s universe is never fully explained.
But it calls to attention a person’s ability to filter out the weirdest aspects of the world. All of Noonan’s characters are puppets going through the motions of their day without stopping to think about their role in the world. Michael’s taxi driver from the airport is not focused on his job or his family as much as he is focused on making sure Michael tries the chili in Cincinnati. (As an aside, I’ve eaten at Skyline and the chili is fantastic.)
But Michael notices such things, which is why he becomes immediately infatuated with the titular Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh). She’s a woman who’s come to see his lecture with her friend. He had drinks with her and takes her up to his room, convinced she’s a person who, like him, can see the world the way it truly is.
Kaufman’s films have always followed their own logic to make the fantastical seem sensible. After watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I couldn’t help but wonder if I knew someone who went to Lacuna. And the bizarre scene of a woman literally buying a house that was on fire was darkly hilarious because the buyer didn’t seem fit to ask about the fire until the very end of the scene. Anomalisa has numerous scenes like that. The film is animated because it makes sense that the people Michael encounters would be nothing more than dolls going through the motions. One scene that I found funny was the scene in which Michael tries to order room service. The clerk repeats every single item back to Michael with enthusiasm, as Michael becomes increasingly annoyed that this person would dare be happy to serve him.
The reason the film works is that Michael is a terrible human being. Kaufman does not want you to like him or feel sorry for him. Michael is a man who is paid a lot of money to give a speech only to suffer a severe nervous breakdown onstage. He cheats on his wife, he insults the people around him, and despite working in customer service he treats CSRs with no patience. Being John Malkovich worked for the same reason. Greg Schwartz was a pathetic loser who could not relate to any being not attached to strings.
And like Schwartz, Stone becomes trapped by his own neurosis. He is unable to stand the woman who may solve his problems, and instead focuses on how she talks with her mouth full. In the end, the only other different voice he can hear is on a mechanical toy.
Still, I also have a feeling that Anomalisa would have worked better as a short film than as a feature. It clocks in at 90 minutes, but most of what the film has to say is done in about 45 minutes. It’s well paced enough that the film is not boring, but the point of the second act is well established. And perhaps it’s just me, but a sex scene between dolls will always be awkward.
Anomalisa’s only crime is that it is not as inventive as some of Charlie Kaufman’s other films. But few films have ever matched those levels. Anomalisa is still a revealing portrait of a man who thinks he is stuck in a prison but in reality has earned his fate. The most shocking film about the movie is that someone of Kaufman’s caliber had to beg for money to get the film made. But then, it’s necessary for a film as uncompromisingly honest as this one.