If the name Charlie Kaufman doesn’t mean anything to you, I’m sure that will change if I were to mention Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, or, my favorite of his work, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Each of these films use clever gimmicks to tell character-focused stories exploring identity and humanity. Released on DVD June 7th 2016, it’s with little surprise that the 2015 festival-focused Anomalisa explores similar ground, but what makes it stand apart from the others is the medium co-directors Kaufman and Duke Johnson choose to bring the story to life: stop-motion puppetry. Simultaneously dissociative and connective, the puppets bring to life a story that is emotionally striking and visually captivating in a simple story about one man’s quest for connection.
Anomalisa focuses on Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), an author and motivational speaker specializing in customer service, who travels to Cincinnati from L.A. for an overnight visit and lecture. Though his specialty is bringing people together, Michael is joyless. He appears dissociated from his own life, as well as those around him, though he so clearly wants to connect. By accident, Michael meets a woman named Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) who manages to insert some hope back into his life. While both of these actors do an amazing job bringing their characters to life, huge credit should be given to the third member of the cast, Tom Noonan, who voices every other character in the film with only the slightest variations to indicate age and gender.
From the outside, the use of stop-motion seems like a gimmick, but it is exceedingly necessary to bring Anomalisa and the issues of identity, self-worth, connection, and control to life. By their nature, puppets add an element of “otherness” to a story. They are like us, but not us. Therefore, from the outset, the audience becomes like Michael Stone, recognizing a piece of ourselves within the story, but not really at all. Serving as both narrative tool and storytelling medium, the puppets are able to seamlessly evoke Michael’s internal perception of a physical separation from humanity by demonstrating in the physical realm how he sees the world. Though CGI could have been used on actors, there is something visceral about being able to see the separative lines within the facial fabrications, as though it identifies and represents the disparate sections of the human face.
Another interesting element of the narrative is one that is never discussed either directly or indirectly. Given that Michael seems to see every face and hear every voice as the same, I suspect that Michael suffers from a condition known as prosopagnosia, or face blindness. Because it’s never made explicit, the audience can’t know for sure if Michael actually has this cognitive disorder OR if it’s merely a representation of how his depression causes him to see the world: devoid of uniqueness. Whether real or perceived, this element adds to the isolation Michael feels. He is singular in a world of sameness. Everyone looks the same. Everyone sounds the same. He’s so hopeless, a fraud, really, as an expert in bringing people together, that when he hears – ever so briefly – a new sound, he runs dishelved from his hotel room, frantically knocking on neighboring doors, pleadingly asking each resident for the source. This is truly a man set apart, but it would be too simple to have an outside element be the cause of Michael’s distress, and that’s part of the beauty of the film.
Michael, our protagonist, should be the one we root for, yet he continually gives us reasons not to. Though some of his behavior could be explained as the attempts of one human to seek a connection with another, he rarely takes other people’s feelings into consideration. This makes him both outwardly and inwardly selfish. In his craving for connections, he also seeks to control them. He wants them to fit his view, his life, and his desire and, in doing so, brings back the isolation he wishes to escape.
Though this seems like a downer of a film, its methods of exploring what it means to be human and see connections in our lives is exceedingly touching. Life has few resolutions, though it does have a sudden start and unexpected end. Anomolisa encourages you to realize that it’s what we are in-between that makes up the story of our life. Unlike Michael, we must be willing to accept responsibility for our choices or we will become a prisoner to them.
Available now for rent or streaming through most services and on DVD/BluRay.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.