Anomalisa is a retort to itself. Almost entirely set in a blandly upscale hotel, the movie centers on a tired, middle-aged man named Michael Stone who is visiting Cincinnati to speak at a conference on customer service. His attitude: “Everything is boring.” And yet, the film at hand is a wonder – a testament to boundless creativity and endlessly fascinating humanity. If existence was really as boring as Michael Stone seems to believe, a movie like Anomalisa couldn’t exist.
Consider, for instance, the fact that Anomalisa is a work of stop-motion animation, an art form that seems to exist to make every creative decision 10 times more difficult to accomplish. Co-directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, working from Kaufman’s script, didn’t have to just find the right, blasé hotel (an art in its own right), but create one from scratch, at miniature scale. And yet the lamps in the man’s room glow with an uncommon richness; the rain on the windshield of a taxi drearily glistens and smears. Each of these details had to be contrived from scratch – and then captured by the camera. The same intricacy can be heard in the sound design. From traffic noise to radio broadcasts to the splatter of that rain, Anomalisa wholly creates an inhabited (and inhabitable) world.
It isn’t long before you notice something odd about the soundtrack: every person we meet – from the hotel concierge to the bellboy to a woman in the hallway – speaks with the same voice (that of Tom Noonan). It’s jarring and disarming, and one of the earliest indications that for all its intricate, dollhouse realism, Anomalisa is not taking place in a tiny facsimile of the actual world, but inside Michael Stone’s head.
Here is where Anomalisa is most purely a Charlie Kaufman movie. Like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, which he wrote, and Synecdoche, New York which he wrote and directed, Anomalisa is a psychological portrait of a man in existential crisis. Here, “Everything is boring” is a modern variation on the teacher’s cry in Ecclesiastes: “Everything is meaningless.” The little jokes in the movie about the banality of life – the way the cab driver recommends the Cincinnati Zoo by describing it as “zoo-sized” or Michael Stone’s excruciatingly awkward ride up the elevator with the bellboy – are not only dryly funny, but also deeply depressing. Is this what we’ve reduced the human experience to – obligatory, passionless, capitalist exchanges?
The very experience of the movie itself offers a sort of hope.
Michael Stone (whose voice is provided by David Thewlis) finds meaning in nothing else – not in his work as a customer-service expert and not in his family, whom he resignedly calls after getting settled into his room, only to hear that same monotone voice speaking back to him through the phone. Michael tries to find meaning, then, where so many of us do: drink, starting with the hotel mini-bar, and sex. A pathetic attempt to reunite with a former lover who lives in Cincinnati ends in embarrassment. But then Stone hears another voice in the hallway. Meaning, a voice other than Noonan’s. Tracking it down to a nearby room, he knocks on the door and meets Lisa, another conference attendee. She’s quite a bit younger than Michael but otherwise fairly unremarkable – except for that voice (provided, in a beautiful performance, by Jennifer Jason Leigh). Stone describes it as “miraculous” and tells her, “Everyone is one person but you and me.”
Anomalisa then delves into Michael’s infatuation, so that we become mesmerized by Lisa as well. Leigh’s vocal performance is crucial to this; she gives Lisa an impulsive honesty that suddenly halts into quiet self-deprecation. By the time Michael asks her to sing and she softly, unironically launches into a lovely a cappella version of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” we’re completely under her guileless spell.
Anomalisa caps this with a shocking sex scene – shocking not for its explicitness (though it is explicit), but for its tenderness. Michael and Lisa move awkwardly, while baring decidedly unconventional (read: normal) body types. Plus, don’t forget that they’re puppets. Yet the moment still manages to capture something vulnerable and delicate about physical intimacy that most movie sex scenes miss.
Since I already mentioned this is a Charlie Kaufman film, you can probably guess that Anomalisa doesn’t end in relational bliss. I won’t detail much about the morning after, except that it involves a nightmarishly Kafkaesque (and hilarious) visit to the hotel manager’s cavernous basement office, as well as Michael’s public breakdown at the conference itself. You could leave Anomalisa thinking that Michael is as lost as he was at the start, if not more so. Yet the very experience of watching the movie offers a sort of hope, for Michael and for all of us. Perhaps at his next conference, Anomalisa will be playing on his hotel room television, and he can find some small comfort in its wondrous, anomalous existence. Perhaps we can watch it now and do the same.