Even the title of Charlie Kaufman’s animated film—a combination of “anomaly” and “Lisa”—proves gratingly clever in the writer’s typically cutesy fashion. Nevertheless “Anomalisa” will doubtlessly be acclaimed by his many admirers as a profound commentary on the emptiness of modern life. Some of us, however, will see it more as evidence of the vacuity of Kaufman’s ideas.
From a purely technical perspective the picture is quite impressive. Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson have collaborated in using the stop-motion technique artfully to construct a mutedly gray, moody world that accurately reflects the essential grimness of the writer’s vision. The character animation fits beautifully with his message as well, not only in terms of the clunky movements but the marionette-like facial construction, which gives everyone an unreal, plastic look. The fact that all the people save for two are voiced by a single actor (Tom Noonan, doing yeoman work) is perfectly in line with the overall concept as well.
But the fact that all the craftsmanship serves Kaufman’s argument well naturally raises the issue of what that argument is. And shorn of the packaging, it amounts to something absurdly simple—and, quite frankly, banal.
The protagonist of the tale is Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a motivational speaker flying to Cincinnati to deliver a talk to service people about how they can connect with their customers. But Michael, we soon learn, is himself disconnected from other people, including his own family, all of whom he sees as fundamentally identical—same in face, same in voice. Morose and searching for some antidote for this crushing sense of loneliness and alienation, he decides to use his night in a depressing hotel to reconnect with Bella, a girlfriend he broke off with years before. She meets him at the hotel bar, but their conversation does not go well.
Fortuitously he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an exuberant fan who’s come to the big city at her own expense to hear his speech. She’s different from anyone else, including her co-worker Emily, who’s surprised when it’s “commonplace” Lisa that Michael invites to his room. Enraptured by her engagingly offbeat, sunny disposition, he immediately sees her as his one true soul mate and plans to toss his entire life away to be with her. But such happiness proves elusive—and Michael’s professional competence goes down the rubes, too.
In presenting the original version of “Anomalisa” on stage, Kaufman used the pseudonym Fregoli, and in the movie the hotel Stone checks into is the Al Fregoli—all pointing to the so-called Fregoli delusion, a psychological condition, named after a quick-change artist, in which the sufferer believes that other people are just one person in disguise. One could take the movie as nothing more than a hallucinatory portrait of a man suffering from the delusion, which would make it both pedantic and prosaic. More likely, however, Kaufman is just using the concept to suggest a view of the human condition in which each individual perceives himself as the isolated center of things, with other people appearing as little more than interchangeable cogs in a self-centered universe—except, of course, for the one meant just for him. Of course, that’s nothing more than the stuff of puerile romance raised to a high level of pretension. But since this is Kaufman, some will probably embrace it as deep; after all, there were those persuaded by even “Synecdoche, New York,” Kaufman’s last vanity project.
“Anomalisa” is, like so much of the writer’s work, a rather sophomoric attempt at profundity dressed up in existential angst. It is, however, visual engaging for a while, though even its attraction in that regard fades quickly. (The same might be said of Carter Burwell’s mostly elegiac score.) And it does offer an occasional pleasure, usually in the throwaway bits: what’s the function, for example, of that odd mechanical Japanese doll that Michael buys at an erotic toy store as the present he knows his son will expect on his return home? The fact that the thing remains inexplicable makes it an agreeable rarity in a film in which everything else is spelled out all too ponderously, to deadening effect.