Anomalisa: The Unbearable Monotony of Being
(Warning: This analysis contains spoilers).
In a screenwriting and directing career lasting 16 years, the warped mind of Charlie Kaufman has secreted a small but remarkably distinctive oeuvre of loopy, mind-bending dramedies. The construction of these films are post-modern and baffling, ranging from the sci-fi conceits of Being John Malkovich (1999) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) to the intricate meta-narratives of Adaptation (2002) and Synecdoche, NY (2008), the latter of which served as Kaufman’s polarizing directorial debut. Despite the plethora of cinematic tricks and mind-games, all of these films portray universal human dilemmas through the fractured eyes of a mentally disturbed male protagonist. (Most likely the protagonist in all of these films is based on Kaufman himself, and indeed in Adaptation a fictionalized version of the screenwriter is the main character). In the former works of cinema Kaufman cast well-known actors who previously excelled in mainstream fare (John Cusack, Nicolas Cage, and most unexpectedly, Jim Carrey) who all played expertly crafted variations on the quintessential Kaufman persona; hyper-intellectual, forlorn, neurotic, and lovesick.
In his first effort as a director, Kaufman cast the late great character actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing the darkest embodiment of this type yet. The screenplay was more abstruse than ever before, detailing both the literary concept of synecdoche (hence the quirky title) and the obscure mental illness Cotard’s Syndrome. As a playwright with the irrational belief that he is dying, Hoffman finds his life falling apart as he attempts to re-enact and reconstruct his failed past through an increasingly elaborate theatrical production. In lieu of the broad flashes of humor exemplified by Being John Malkovich or the touching romance of Eternal Sunshine, Synecdoche, NY is cerebral, cold, and conveys its dry comedy in the pitchest shades of black imaginable. Seven years and several false starts later, Kaufman returns with his follow-up effort as a director, the deceptively simple Anomalisa. The story is linear and seemingly plotless, the runtime is a mere 85 minutes, and the narrative features only two primary characters (and stars only three actors in total). This apparent accessibility is further perpetuated by the misleading trailer, which erroneously depicts the film as a heartwarming tale of human connection.
The only unusual detail is that Anomalisa, despite being soaked in unvarnished humanity, is told through startlingly lifelike, eerie puppets. These are not the chintzy marionettes of Team America: World Police. Instead, the puppets are an unsettling cross between the convincingly human and blatantly artificial. Luckily, the film’s characterizations fall firmly in the former category. Despite its seeming simplicity, Kaufman’s latest portrayal of the human psyche is even more penetrating and insular than his directorial debut, and makes for a work of cinema that explores psychological themes in a fashion that is simultaneously direct and enigmatic.
The World in One Thinly Veiled Voice
In all of Kaufman’s works, the protagonist is so wrapped up in his own thoughts and impressions that the world is a distant, impenetrable, and alienating place. Never is this truer than in Anomalisa. Michael Stone, a British ex-pat living with his wife and son in Los Angeles (a perfectly cast voice of David Thewlis), is about to spend one day and night in Cincinnati for a motivational speech based around his best-selling customer service tome. In a relatively cliched irony, this coach in human relations harbors an inability to connect with fellow human beings. His wife and son are viewed as tiresome nuisances, and the friendly Midwestern small talk he experiences throughout downtown Cincinnati irks him to an excessive degree. It is not surprising that Michael would view the rest of human existence as deathly dull; after all, every person he meets appears to possess the same exact speaking voice (the brilliant Tom Noonan). This conceit initially appears gimmicky; hearing everyone from the hotel concierge to the characters in the 1930s screwball classic My Man Godfrey (watched on television) to Michael’s wife speaking in a monotonous male voice may come across as distracting and self-consciously quirky.
This creative decision was not due to mere convenience or laziness in casting, however. It proves a specific psychological point that reverberates throughout the stealthily complex screenplay. The high-end hotel that Michael checks into is called Fregoli, which is a sly, deliberate choice. Akin to Synecdoche, NY‘s exploration of Cotard’s Syndrome, Anomalisa is a subtle portrait of the unusual Fregoli’s Delusion. This rare mental disorder causes the afflicted to believe that almost every individual whom one meets is actually the same person in disguise. This mental illness is classified as a “monothematic delusion,” as its focus is narrowly centered on this irrational belief. Except for a surreal, nightmarish dream sequence, it is unclear if Michael boasts the extreme paranoia that is a hallmark of Fregoli’s Delusion. Yet, through the ever-present voice of Noonan, he does indeed believe that the human race is comprised of a homogenous blend of tedium, rather than unique and fascinating individuals.
In a review by Dave Calhoun of Time Out, it is noted that the themes of alienation and the pursuit of interpersonal intimacy were similarly captured in Jason Reitman’s Up in The Air and especially Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation. In its exploration of Fregoli’s Delusion, however, Kaufman takes this thematic concern to its psychological extreme. Not only does Michael struggle to relate to society; he essentially believes he alone is a singular human, which is a sign of both narcissism and depression. Most people can see a bit of themselves in Michael’s tormented isolation, but does anyone truly believe that each and every human on earth is simply the same person?
This, as always, is where Kaufman takes familiar conceits into uncharted realms. As well as speaking in the same voice, each of the characters, no matter the gender or age, look remarkably yet subtly similar to each other. Only Michael, with strongly defined features and silver hair, stands out in a sea of uniformity. The title, however, is a play on “anomaly,” and therefore it is inevitable that there must be somebody in the film’s self-contained universe who stands out. How this plot device is executed, however, is far from predictable.
She’s Not Like All The Others- Or Is She?
As previously noted, the trailer is edited in such a way that Anomalisa is touted as a life-affirming, uplifting tale of finding a person to complete one’s self. Of course, the trailer never mentions Michael’s delusions, or the fact that the ultimate attempt at romantic fulfillment, marriage, is a colossal disappointment for the melancholy writer. The comparison to Lost In Translation or Up In The Air is also apt in that each film portrays the protagonist making a sudden, deep connection with a female who appears out of the blue. This indeed happens in Anomalisa, the title of which refers to Lisa (voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh, joining her performance in The Hateful Eight as among the best of 2015). While in the earlier films, it is transparent that the protagonists truly felt something special with their brief flings, Anomalisa shatters the notion of love as authentic and tangible.
As the film begins, Michael is flying on a mind-numbing airplane, when a ghostly visage of Michael’s infuriated ex-girlfriend appears (voiced once again by Noonan). The vision lambastes him for leaving her, as a letter appears on the screen. As revealed later on, this relationship was a distant 11 years in the past, and ironically, his ex Bella now lives in Cincinnati. As Michael calls her up, she reluctantly agrees to meet him for a drink. The subsequent sequence is as raw and emotionally direct as anything by John Cassavettes, and while, for once, Michael appears to experience actual human feelings for his ex-girlfriend, the encounter ends in disappointment and anger. Maybe indeed Bella was not exceptional; tellingly, she too has the same voice as everybody else.
While Michael humorously struggles with the polarizing temperatures in his dingy hotel shower, he magically hears a high, feminine voice which inexplicably does not belong to Noonan. This leads to a far smoother bar meeting with this peculiar Lisa and her blonde, sexy friend Emily (Noonan, naturally). It is clear from Lisa’s introduction that she possesses remarkably low self-esteem, as she repeatedly admonishes herself to “Shut up, Lisa!” Despite her belief that she is a mundane amorphous blob, Michael is immediately, inexplicably drawn to her. As he bravely asks her to accompany him to his room, an extended sequence unfolds, which is among the most affecting portraits of human existence in recent cinematic memory. Although Kaufman’s works are undeniably male-centric, each of his films’ has utilized excellent roles for women, from Catherine Keener in Being John Malkovich and Meryl Streep in Adaptation to Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine.
Befitting the title, Anomalisa continues this trend, even if the woman in question is a puppet. As the withdrawn, achingly lonely Lisa, Leigh radiates the disaffection of being a shy, mousy female in a world that expects all women to be blonde bombshells. As she notes, “usually everyone prefers Emily.” Despite this, Michael sees something in her that nobody else does. What follows is a surprisingly tender sex scene, as well as a show-stopping, melancholy cover of the Cyndi Lauper chestnut “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” In this section of the film, the trailer seems to be accurate.
Never a slave to convention or the perpetual optimism of Hollywood product, Kaufman turns this impression on its head during the morning after. As Michael makes the quantum leap into asking Lisa to live with him and considers a divorce, the light shines on Lisa’s imperfections, and slowly her “magic” voice blends in with the robotic intonations of Noonan. This sequence is shattering in its visualization of the crushing moment when one realizes that a person who seemed so extraordinary is simply a forgettable face in the crowd. Before this sequence, a viewer may expect the film to culminate in these solitary individuals riding off together into the sunset, fulfilling Stone’s inspirational maxim that there is “somebody out there for everyone.”
Instead, the film dives into ambiguity and sobering defeat. Earlier in the film, Michael finds an otherworldly Japanese doll which he plans to give to his spoiled son. Akin to Lisa, the doll is both anomalous and a bit drab, even containing a similar scar and singing skills (the voice of the doll also belongs to Leigh). Solemnly, the final image of Anomalisa is not two lovers embracing in a convertible, but Stone sadly sitting on his stair-steps listening to the doll’s enchanting song, an inadequate but oddly fitting substitute for the abandoned Lisa. For some moviegoers, the doggedly downbeat conclusion to a film that seems to surge with romance and heartrending emotion at the mid-point may seem unbearably depressing. The “plot,” such as it is, can be summarized in a couple sentences, but there are surprising layers to the film.
In particular, there are two major ambiguities that Kaufman slips into the cracks which can lead to much thought and discussion. The previously noted parallels between the enigmatic Japanese doll and Lisa herself has led some on IMDb to speculate that perhaps the latter actually is the doll; while an interesting theory, Kaufman has always been more concerned with allegory and symbolism than literalism. More plausibly, the character of Bella is a precursor to Lisa in Michael’s once-firm belief that she was the exception to the rule. Perhaps, despite the implication that they were in a long-term relationship, Bella was simply another Cincinnati one-night-stand, who was deserted by Michael as soon as he realized that her atypical nature was a facade. These subtle, unanswered questions result in a film that rewards re-watching and analysis.
In many ways, despite the biting humor and richly defined, deeply human characters, Anomalisa is as depressive as its protagonist. Most filmmakers would have made a heartfelt ode to overcoming loneliness out of the material, akin to Tom McCarthy’s moving The Station Agent. Conversely, Kaufman holds steadfast to the film’s boldly pessimistic message: the world is not made up of unique individuals, but instead masses of monotony. When a person arrives who appears to break this mold, this is immediately revealed to be a mere illusion. Whether one agrees with Kaufman, he expresses this bleak worldview lucidly, resulting in a masterpiece of psychology, melancholy, and human emotion.
Calhoun, Dave. “Anomalisa Review,” Time Out London, 2016.
Langdon, R. “The Fregoli Delusion: a Disorder of Person Identification and Tracking,” Top Cognitive Science, 2014.
Smith, Zadie. “Windows On The Will,” New York Review of Books, 2016.
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