Anomalisa (2015)

Directors: Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson
Writer: Charlie Kaufman
Cinematographer: Joe Passarelli
Composer: Carter Burwell
Cast: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan.

I first became aware of Charlie Kaufman in the same way most people did, which was as a writer of screenplays. His first collaborator was the music video director Spike Jonze and the two men made their feature film debut with the incredible Being John Malkovich. A few years later the teamed up for the second and last time with the equally great Adaptation. Kaufman kept writing and worked next with French director Michel Gondry on Human Nature and the fantastic Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. There was also a one time collaboration with George Clooney’s directorial debut Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. And then Kaufman stepped into the role of director as well as of that as writer with what, in my humble and insignificant opinion, is the absolute best movie of the first decade of the new millennium: Synecdoche, New York. Kaufman is one of the most singular voices to become a part of the world of movie making and as viewers we are all the better for it. I read a lot of theory and philosophy, and I am not being glib when I state that his works belong in the canon as a representation of the evolution of human thinking and as studies and proof that there are still many places to go that extend beyond Descartes, Nietzsche, Foucault, Derrida, and Butler. His movies are texts, ripe with imagery and observations about humanity that are not worthy of a second look, but of actual study and analysis beyond the scope of movie criticism or mere film reviews and discussions. Adding one more text to his oeuvre, this year comes Anomalisa, a beautiful and poignant film entirely shot in stop-motion animation. At first I was apprehensive about it, would it become a schtick? What did the medium allow for that a more traditional live action film would not allow? I should have had more faith, and quite quickly I was shushed into stunned silence and awe as I was presented with yet another amazing work that will be difficult to ever shake off (his last movie came out 7 years ago, which I went to see in the theater on opening weekend, and I still find myself thinking about it from time to time).

The movie opens with self-help author Michael Stone arriving at the Cincinnati airport for a conference he is the keynote speaker for. After a very awkward and uncomfortable cab ride to his hotel, the Fregoli, Michael is escorted to his room. At first I wasn’t completely sure, but I couldn’t tell the difference between the voices of the cab driver, the hotel manager, or the bellboy. They all sounded exactly the same to me. And then we hear a woman speak, but her voice is also male. I also thought the name of the hotel sounded familiar, but at first I thought it was because I’ve been to Cincinnati (I attended one year of college in Ohio) and believed that to be the reason. Then things clicked. All voices aside from Michael Stone’s, played with wry British resignation by David Thewlis, were being performed by the same voice actor (Tom Noonan). Which then reminded me of the Fregoli delusion, a psychological condition in which a person believes other people are in fact the same person, disguised to look different or capable of changing their appearance altogether. Already the film was messing with traditional narrative structures and subverting one of our senses and suddenly, just like for Michael, all human beings sound exactly the same regardless of age or gender, we become Michael Stone and see the world through his eyes and, especially, his ears.

After a disastrous attempt to reconnect with a former flame Michael begins to undress when something catches his ear: a voice, a different one, in the hotel hallway. Michael rushes to dress as quickly as possible and what follows is a frantic search for the owner of the singular voice in a sea of sameness. He knocks on door after door and finally finds who he was looking for, a woman in the hotel who just so happens to be there specifically to see Michael Stone speak the next day. We find out the woman’s name is Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and that she is the most ordinary of people: insecure, damaged, forgettable, sweet, simple. And yet she is also the most exciting and singular of all people at the same time. She loves the music of Sarah Brightman, she wants to learn languages, she is observant but also childish. To Michael she is an anomaly of a person, she is, in fact, Anomalisa.

The entire film takes place over the course of 24 hours, but just like Kaufman’s previous effort, the small and minute is a representation of the whole, and we are actually treated to a portrayal of human interaction, of relationships, of the connections that enter and exit our lives, of love and loss. I can’t shake the film in spite of having seen it a week ago. I waited to review it because I wanted to see if my enthusiasm would subside, or if my cynicism would overtake the film’s themes or message(s). It did not happen. The film is perfection. This film is not just a movie, it is a mirror that is being held up to us, asking each and every viewer to pause, recognize themselves, to what end? Well, that is then up to each person, because as with every great work of philosophy, ultimately the burden is on the individual to do with these new truths in the way they see fit. And for that, Kaufman showcases why he is a master who transcends the media and inches towards true greatness.


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