Since viewing it in January, I have struggled with the best way to share my thoughts on 2015 Oscar nominee Anomalisa. Mainly how could I post a review of a film that I skipped large portions of for content reasons? Finally, I just decided to post my thoughts rather than a review. I think I saw enough of Anomalisa to give an opinion on the style and overall production, but can’t in good conscience give a traditional review.
Anomalisa was the brainchild of director Charlie Kaufman. He originally wrote it as a ‘sound play’, which I must confess I had never heard of before researching this film. I didn’t know people went to plays just to hear dialogue? Cool.
So, eventually Kaufman decided to put up a kickstarter for an Anomalisa short and the decision was made to use puppets and change it to feature length film. The puppets were made using 3D printers and 18 Michaels and 6 Lisas were designed. There are only 3 vocal performances in Anomalisa- Michael (David Thewlis), Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Everyone else (Tom Noonan).
According to Kaufman the goal of the film was to “forget they were looking at something animated and just get wrapped up in the scene,” further explaining that “the challenge we felt with so much animated stuff is that you’re always conscious of the animation, and we kept asking, ‘What if we could escape that? What would it be like?”
After viewing the film several times I would say they achieved their goals. The animation in Anomalisa is gorgeous. I’m a huge stop motion junkie and to see the fluidity and expressions of the characters is remarkable. Also it has this unique mix of artistry and realism that I haven’t seen before. Like there are times when you forget you are watching stop motion but then the lines around the characters faces remind you. So at one moment you are both immersed in the world and reminded it is art. I don’t know if that makes sense but there is definitely that dichotomy in the art design.
The main story behind Anomalisa is it’s about a man named Michael who is traveling to Cincinnati to deliver a speech on his book on customer service. To Michael everyone appears, even sounds the same. The world has become streamlined and boring and he has lost hope in anything but a robot-like existence.
He ends up making his way to his hotel, briefly having dinner with an old flame and then meeting a woman named Lisa who has come to hear him speak. She fascinates Michael because of a scar on her face and something different in her demeanor and personality. As they get to know each other better he refers to her as Anomalisa (an anomaly named Lisa). They become more intimate and then the story plays out more or less how you might predict.
So, let’s address the elephant in the room. As someone who doesn’t usually watch a lot of rated R content, there was a lot in Anomalisa I had to skip over. That is why I didn’t feel I could give it a true ‘review’. I skipped at least 20 minutes of the film. The sensuality and language in Anomalisa is extremely strong. Even with skipping I was still shocked at how R rated it truly is.
I actually think this is more than just a moral problem with the film. The first 2/3rd you have interesting character development and then the final act with all the sexuality becomes kind of expected and one note. I wonder if being sexually daring may have created a distraction on the core story and message? Needless to say, I didn’t feel I missed anything by skipping over it and if that’s the case was it really that important?
Charlie Kaufman’s messaging in Anomalisa is a pretty cynical one and definitely won’t be for everyone. Michael loves Lisa because she is different, an anomaly; however, when they eat breakfast together her mannerisms start to drive him crazy. He then starts to see her as everyone else and has a kind of manic episode while delivering his speech. Kaufman seems to be asking ‘are we all the same’ and if we are- what’s the point in living in all that sameness?
I’m not really sure Kaufman has an answer, which is very depressing. Maybe it’s just to have sensual experiences or to hope to find an actual anomalisa one day? That if we keep trying we will find something unique? Like I said, it’s a pretty cynical message.
That said, I do relate to the message in a certain way. When I was unhappy in my work the world did feel the same- just rows of cubicles and repetitive acts with no meaning or love attached to them. I was miserable and it’s hard to be hopeful when mundanity has taken over your life. I know I would rather do anything than work at desk with a cubicle like the scores of Lisas do in Michael’s dream.
There’s even a philosophic concept behind Kaufman’s visuals. It has to do with the reality of ‘the other’. When we meet another human being we are immediately struck by their sense of being or their humanity. Then we, in an attempt to order what’s around us, turn them into the same. So, a person is human but then they are a more of the same- a woman, an ethnicity, age, race, religion etc. We all do it. It’s human nature.
Once someone is the same they can be treated differently than when they are a unique being. We can see that in Michael’s treatment of Lisa. When she is an anomaly she is prized but as soon as she is the same he is done with her.
I guess where I wonder about Kaufman’s cynicism is can you really know someone’s sameness or uniqueness from one night of sex? Most of what Michael is depressed over comes from kind of superficial observations and even with Lisa he really doesn’t get to know her very well before judging her as both an angel and then a bland bore. But then again, that’s kind of what happens when we are depressed so maybe that’s what Kaufman is trying to show?
It’s another reason I think the sensuality becomes a distraction in the last third of the story. I really wanted to find out more of why Michael is so cynical and depressed. I mean we’ve seen the morose suburbanite contemplating sameness so many times (American Beauty, Birdman…) that aside from the stop motion I’m not sure what is so new about Kaufman’s insight here?
Even his wife’s attempt to throw a surprise party is seen as more of the same to Michael. What could make him happy? Evidently it is finding more Anomalisa’s but since the Anomalisa was a disappointment it seems a hopeless endeavor? I don’t think Michael will ever find what he is looking for, which is very depressing.
My final thoughts on Anomalisa is it is striking and beautiful in many ways. I like the core idea of examining sameness and the other but it’s not exactly new to cinema. Sure the animation is different and the adult content shocking, but Kaufman is so relentlessly cynical it becomes frustrating. In many ways the cynical answer is kind of easy where a more hopeful one takes work and a more complex view of human beings.
I wish instead of spending the final third act shocking the audience with sexual content Kaufman had explored some kind of solution for Michael. I’m not saying he has to be happy and everything be solved but maybe a more complicated answer than we are all robots and there is no hope would be more thought provoking?
But that said, I do appreciate the artistry and ambition of Anomalisa. It’s definitely something that will make you think about your own life and if you are an Anomalisa or just like everyone else. (Also are you judgemental like Michael and TURN everyone into the same when they are actually unique?). I appreciate the questions the film asks and the way it is animated. I think the third act gets distracted with the adult content but as I skipped over some of those segments there may be insight I missed.
No grade from me for Anomalisa, as this is not a review, but I hope that insight was helpful. Make sure you know this is a strong R rated film and definitely not for everyone. Even skipping the sexual content, there is a lot of profanity and vulgarity, so be forewarned.
So what did you think of Anomalisa? I will definitely be curious for your thoughts on this one!