Anomalisa’s puppets reinforce its fascinating humanity

Everyone is the centre of their own universe. Empathy isn’t dead by any means, but existential selfishness is surely the default mode of thinking. Living in that feeling, though, is a soul-breaking form of loneliness, and one that Anomalisa explores in interesting and memorable ways. Anomalisa is not a movie above criticism, but its treats come very much from its surprises (like all Kaufman films), so I recommend not reading about it before seeing it for yourself. Having one of the central conceits spoiled ahead of time definitely affected my experience, but I really want to write more words about it, so consider yourself cautioned.

Anomalisa has marketed itself through its soft-focus stop-motion animation, but that turns out to be a secondary aesthetic choice. Now is a good time to stop reading and watch the movie, by the way, so I’ll hide this particular sentence as there for those who don’t care about spoilers (highlight to read). The primary conceit is that every character outside of protagonist Michael Stone is voiced by Tom Noonan. Not just bellhops and cabbies, but the actors and actresses on TV, the singers on the radio, and Michael’s wife and (hilariously) son as well. Michael, as such, finds himself unable to connect with people, and moreso uninterested in doing so, until he meets a woman named Lisa who has her own voice (Jennifer Jason Leigh’s) and finds himself enraptured.

It’s an exceptional concept, and one that fits very well with the rest of Kaufman’s work. However, while the loneliness is highlighted many times over, the selfishness is left open to interpretation. Michael’s viewpoint of the entire non-Lisa world is not necessarily a reflection on his mindset but rather on his narcissism. He’s a famous writer and speaker in the field of customer service (an odd touch whose significance I don’t fully grasp), which leads to many (including Lisa) idolizing him and feeding his ego. It becomes clearer and clearer throughout that Michael is by no means sympathetic. He’s possible to identify with, but he’s the worst many of us see in ourselves. There’s a possible sympathetic interpretation by ascribing mental illness to the conceit (backed up by naming the hotel after the Fregoli delusion), but at the end of the day, it’s sociopathy. By contrast, Lisa is designed as the most fundamentally decent person to have ever lived; her singling out is as much of a mystery to Michael as ourselves.

A sympathetic main character is far from important for an interesting movie, and Anomalisa certainly is interesting. One sequence late in the film threatens a very Kaufman-esque direction, ringing back strongly to Being John Malkovich. Other hit-and-miss elements seem to be taking inspiration from Rick & Morty (Dino Stamatopoulos and Dan Harmon both have production credits), in an odd case of the inspirational snake eating its own tail. The puppets are very anatomically correct, and a sex scene is more graphic than would be possible with human actors without ever being crude. Instead, its human, realistically awkward and intimate. Really, the entire movie is more human than it would have been with live actors. And being human is every bit as fascinating as it is off-putting.

anomalisa-trailer

A-

Anomalisa (2015)
Dir. Charlie Kaufman
Voiced by David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tom Noonan
Rotten Tomatoes (90%)
IMDb (7.5)

Even though the entire review was spoilery, so very specific SPOILERS below that I wanted to talk about (highlight to read).

The movie gives away its ending early on in retrospect, with Michael’s ex Bella being voiced by Noonan as well. Michael is a serial romantic, who fell for Bella, Lisa, and presumably his wife before eventually growing bored and disconnected. It’s an oddity that his idolization of Lisa falls so quickly, but the fact that it happens when she mentions going to the zoo (I hear its zoo-sized) really hammers home that its Michael’s sense of self-superiority that makes him distant. Hell, even the hotel manager in his dream is a big fan. Things like this skew my interpretation to Anomalisa being an examination of a toxic ego rather than depression, although it can definitely be both.

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Anomalisa’s puppets reinforce its fascinating humanity

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