Charlie Kaufman’s ‘Anomalisa’

Missed connections

Charlie Kaufman’s work has always centered on the human struggle for connection. From the mental spelunking, both metaphorical and literal, of Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, to the existential dread and grandiose yearning of Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman has always been preoccupied with exploring the conditions of possibility for true, meaningful relationships, which he has dramatized in ways as surreal as they are affecting.

A shockingly unconventional use of animation. (both photos © 2015 Paramount Pictures)

Anomalisa, his latest film, treads similar thematic ground, but this time with a twist: Kaufman, in a feat of formal audacity that displays the complete indifference toward existing trends (commercial or otherwise) we’ve come to expect from him, has brought it to life as a work of stop-motion animation.

The film centers on a brief interval in the life of a successful but hopelessly lonely customer service guru, Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis). We first encounter him flying to Cincinnati for work, gazing out the window at another plane, visible but distant. As he makes his way from his plane to a waiting taxi, then on to his luxurious yet sterile hotel room, each interaction he has is agonizingly banal, and every sincere overture he makes to others blows up in his face. He is frustrated, depressed, and desperately lonely. But that all changes when he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an anomaly in the vast web of sameness and boredom that surrounds him. In her, he sees the way out of his solitude.

The film’s basic premise is undeniably trite. But this triteness, and the unabashed earnestness that leverages it, underlies the portrayal of the struggles of being a person among people. Michael’s quotidian interactions — with a cab driver, a bellhop, an ex-lover — float somewhere between the darkly comic and simply dark. In them we find some of the film’s strongest moments. The mundane difficulties and frustrations of human interaction — the unavoidable banality of many conversations, the sensation of watching yourself become a person you hate while feeling helpless to stop the process of becoming it — are depicted with a resolute and unflinching cinematic gaze that refuses to relinquish its empathy.

Like brushstrokes on canvas

The film’s stop-motion technique, far from being a gimmick, plays an integral role in Anomalisa’s thematic landscape. Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson develop a visual style that is neither cartoonish nor realistic. Each character’s face and head has visible lines through the eyes and around the jaw, presumably the gaps between the models’ interchangeable parts. Far from being hidden, this blatant evidence of the film’s construction is left visible, like brushstrokes on a canvas — or, in the context of the film’s narrative, the forced and artificial character of so many of our interactions with one another.

Equally fascinating is the fact that, one extended dream sequence notwithstanding, Anomalisa never strays anywhere near the fantastic or surreal — indeed, it hews far more closely to straightforward realism than most of Kaufman’s previous films. Using animation to portray phone calls, conversations, moments of physical intimacy feels superfluous until we realize how shockingly unconventional it is: Very rarely does animation step on the toes of live-action cinema like this, taking its subject matter as its own.

But as Michael’s rendezvous with Lisa progresses, the movie’s emotional and philosophical engine begins to falter. The power imbalance between the two characters grows more pronounced, and Michael’s attitude toward Lisa begins to shift from heartfelt affection to a narcissistic brand of possessiveness in which embracing her weakness serves as the antidote to his own.

Tangled sympathies

This isn’t a problem in its own right, but it creates a dilemma: Michael must either find redemption or cease to serve as our sole avatar in the exploration of what it means to be a thinking, feeling human being. The dilemma isn’t resolved — our sympathies are left tangled, conflicted. We’re unsure whether Anomalisa views Michael as a valid archetype for how people relate to each other, or if presenting the film from his increasingly unpalatable perspective is simply an exercise in pushing our identification to its limits.

“Who is anyone?” Michael asks near the film’s conclusion, addressing a large, unseen audience that functions as the cinematic stand-in for the audience of Anomalisa itself. Michael’s preoccupation with this question remains just that; answers, or even a way toward them, hover perpetually outside his grasp.

But this doesn’t diminish the moments of joy and exhilaration that do exist, both in his relationship with Lisa and the film itself. Though not at the level of Kaufman’s previous films, Anomalisa is nevertheless a fascinating and affecting work of cinema — in spite of its flaws and, paradoxically, because of them.

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