Anomalisa d. Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson (2015)
We all know examples of art thriving or flourishing in compromised scenarios, the enforced resourcefulness of impoverished directors and so on. That’s partly relevant here: Charlie Kaufman had very little money for Anomalisa. But the circumstances in this case turned out to be entirely auspicious. Anomalisa was originally a radio play, so was built for economy. It’s a two-hander set, for 90% of the duration, in the same hotel room. And one of the central conceits — the central character is suffering from an acute psychological disorder called “The Fregoli Delusion,” which means that everyone he encounters wears the same face and is, it seems, the same person, indistinct from anyone else — means that, with a little CGI, you could quite easily put the same actor/actress in multiple roles (which probably wouldn’t be much fun for the lead performer).
I’m glad that’s not how this went: a live-action version would spend most of its time trying to do, or being accused of doing, things already very much done in Being John Malkovich. A moot point, as Kaufman only had a miniscule budget. Necessity ultimately brought Anomalisa to surely its optimum cinematic inception: a combination of stop-motion puppetry and rendered animation. The weird kind of jerky melancholy the roughly 12-inch dolls (positioned and manipulated on a number of differently scaled sets) invoke unsurprisingly complements Kaufman’s sour outlook. Their awkward movements and the fact that you know their every gesture, from “swinging” members to an arched eyebrow, was delicately manhandled into position can’t help but fit into the idea of a depressive central character, overcome with inertia and doubt, who is seemingly working hard just to stay upright and who would, given the chance, quite happily micro-manage every variable in an increasingly intolerable world.
The effects are brilliantly realized. The animated puppets, coupled with their faltering, often barely-proffered mutterances (usually voiced by Tom Noonan and his specific brand of soothing, antiseptic warmth, like a kindly undertaker) are strangely affecting figure(ine)s. Their gestures and movements elude any kind of simple appraisal and provoke a unique response. Their faces suggest hurt and reluctant hopefulness and they move like time-lapsed pensioners, which creates an uncanny sense of fragility and exposure. Add to that the perfectly-judged voices of David Thewlis (who manages to sound like a likeably volatile curmudgeon), Noonan (referred to in the credits as “Everyone else”) and particularly Jennifer Jason Leigh, and you’re primed for a seriously painful bout of excruciating empathy.
Wrenching visuals aside, it’s the script and the stresses and specificities the dialogue imposes that make Anomalisa essential viewing. You could probably put these conversations in the mouths of stick figures or cartoon characters. Kaufman once again offers up more of his neurotically funny existential philosophy, and the exchanges feel equal parts Woody Allen and David Mamet, with a little bit of Schopenhauer and still-seething adolescent angst thrown in. Anomalisa is pinpoint, defiant resignation, the fleeting fracture of a man’s inviolable cynicism by someone who, had he been “happy,” he may never have noticed.
The central character, Michael Stone, is an author and motivational speaker (specialty: “customer services”) who can’t motivate himself to do anything other than dig himself deeper into a pit of self-absorbed disconsolation. He’s flying into Cincinnatti to deliver a speech and is deeply uninspired by the prospect. We first see him sat in a window seat, gazing out at another plane that emerges from cloud before seeming to vanish in the near distance, a hint at a distracted, controlling mindset and an ominous marker for future self-deception.
The airport interior doesn’t cheer him up any: everyone bustling through the arrival lounge — apart from all looking and sounding virtually identical, as do virtually all the characters in Anomalisa, so acute is Michael’s depressed self-absorption — seems to regard him with curious hostility or uneasy perplexity, and the driver of a hotel-bound taxi compounds his unease, recognizing his northern-English drawl but throwing a lazy grab-bag of inaccurate cultural stereotypes at him by way of banter. Said cab driver also implores him to visit the zoo, which is “not too big or small — it’s zoo-sized.” Once at the hotel, he’s faced with yet more inane pleasantries and by-rote hospitality, and eventually, after getting a second excitable reminder about the weather (“it’s 68 degrees Fahrenheit!”), gets the chance to feel really sorry for himself in a hellishly respectable, sound-sealed hotel room/tomb.
Whilst in there he quickly realizes he no longer has anyone onto whom he can project his self-hatred. He certainly can’t for long endure a solitude in which he can only self-immolate: he needs contact, community, anything but the undistracted contents of his own head. He orders room-service, phones his family (clearly a sore point), glugs out a minibar vodka and, desperate, searches the phonebook for an old flame. Even while on the phone to her he can’t quite explain why he’s calling, and the jittery, stilted conversation, during which both caller and called plunge ahead, backtrack, self-edit, mumble and finally agree to meet, is brilliantly judged. Kaufman knows how to do ambivalent, hopeful, self-reproachful need.
The meeting is a misread disaster. The woman doesn’t want to be there, and neither does Michael, but both prefer the horror of the abortive rekindling of a long-dead romance to simple loneliness. Until, that is, Michael invites her up to his room and she storms out. His attempt to make amends has furthered acrimony, and he soon enough begins a bit of a meltdown which has him racing up and down the corridor of his floor randomly knocking on doors, which leads him to Lisa and her roommate. Lucky for him, they’re in town to hear him speak, are bashful acolytes of his recycled wisdom, have his book at hand and are flattered by his addled attention.
With the two ladies in tow he returns to the bar; they all get sloshed and he ends up awkwardly inviting Lisa back to his room. Here begins the crux of the film, the brief coming together of these two deeply morose characters, which crams in the emotional upheaval and love-struck hyperbole of a years-long relationship in one late evening and morning before they return to their disappointing lives.
They tentatively chat, she shocked to be there and hyper-critical of herself, he encouraging and genuinely involved, so it seems, in her plight. She sings (and Jennifer Jason Leigh deserves some kind of recognition for her harrowing rendition of the song) the most bereft version of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” you’ll ever hear. He makes a few inappropriately quixotic suggestions about their potential future together, which she uncertainly approves. They awkwardly kiss; you then get to witness a love scene involving plastic butts and puppet cunnilingus. (If I told you that scene was moving rather than South Park-ish you’d get some idea of just how miraculous this film often is.)
They awaken together (after a surreal dream in which a sinister figure summons Michael to the basement, which is warehouse-huge, and features a figure behind a desk at the far end who eventually professes his love for Michael) and take breakfast in the room. By this time he’s already picking holes in his fantasy version of their future lives, and complaining about her habits. There’s suddenly nothing between them but the night before. He eventually leaves to make his speech on customer services but sabotages it, digressing after long pauses into riffs about war and futility. After throwing the audience uninspiring bones such as “Remember that the customer is an individual,” which only serve as segues into exhibitions of his disgruntled state of mind, he asks, “What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be alive?” They don’t want to think about such things. They don’t like the depressed Michael ranting at them: they want business aphorisms and charismatic affirmation. But, if you’re on Michael’s side, and I was, you want them to begin to listen to his unraveling, knowing that they won’t.
He returns to his life and Lisa hers; neither want either, particularly, and both trudge back into familiar, disappointing scenarios. Their brief encounter was no kind of epiphanic, fateful love affair. It represents something much more affective: a happy anomaly, a random, momentarily euphoric collision. That fact simply heightens the levels of despair and sadness, that this thing they both profess they’ll never forget will remain memorable merely for being a curious interruption that will ultimately make very little difference to their elapsing lives. As soon as reality hits home, that they will never see each other again and probably never should, they’re already overtly nostalgic about what they can’t have and didn’t particularly want, as it’s merely something else.
Charlie Kaufman films (including most of those he’s scripted but especially referencing the majestic madness of Synecdoche New York) all seem deeply, urgently worried about the same issues, and Anomalisa carries the obligatory existential bafflement at the bizarre and endlessly unpredictable cruelty of life as a hyper-conscious, guilt-and-need-ridden human being in the 21st century. Kaufman does the opposite of shrink from the big themes: he uses them as the basis for virtually every single word spoken or self-surveillance-stifled gesture exhibited. His characters are always worrying about how they’re perceived, whether or not what they just said went over correctly or why they’re incessantly worried about what they just said. Here they work to a point in the film — after failing to connect with anyone, out of terror at misinterpretation or out of sheer sclerotic disquiet — where they find the one other person who gets them, or who is willing to empathize out of recognition. This temporarily obviates the need for neurotic justification, or even conversation, where they can finally be themselves, which is to say: outside themselves, lost in someone else. Unfortunately, this then becomes the point at which they see themselves through this “other” and realize they don’t like themselves particularly. But by now, at least, their message — that they’re devastated by their isolation but too fearful to fully expose that recognition — has been reciprocated and they enjoy (if that’s the word) the limited succor that this momentary communion affords.
All Kaufman’s films are about being stuck with one perspective, in one head and body, desperate to see things another person’s way, but ultimately accepting the impossibility of this incessant need, and that it’s really all about that acceptance, that ability to endure regardless. All good things are poisoned by the inevitability of death; all salvation is grasped at with the graveyard in mind. In the end, Kaufman asks: how do you see yourself? And then reminds you that, however that is, you’re wrong. You can’t see yourself through the eyes of others or perhaps even your own; and there are some things you can never explain or discuss. Michael and Lisa will never really know themselves: too painful. And they never really get close to each other, which is, as Kaufman mercilessly suggests, probably for the best. Maybe we all need that one contrived, unimpeachable encounter we can refer back to, the one thing we, or time, or both, couldn’t ruin.