Perhaps the only screenwriter working today whose work shines through above and beyond that of the director is Charlie Kaufman. Be it Being John Malkovich (directed by Spike Jonze) or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (directed by Michael Gondry), the distinctive feature of all these films is that they were conceived in the bizarrely introspective mind of Kaufman. Anomalisa, his second directorial outing (the first being the phenomenal Synecdoche, New York), while not failing the vision of this auteur, is also strangely the most human story put to screen in a long time. Done entirely in stop-motion animation, it allows us an intimate gateway into the mind of a lonesome narcissist who is perpetually depressed by the boring characters around him.
Anomalisa tells the story of one night in the life of Michael Stone, the author of a popular book on improving business through customer service as he is holed up in Cincinnati for a conference. He is a man bored to excruciatingly low spirits by the monotony of life around him, and yearns more than anything else for something to make him feel alive. It is perhaps for this reason that he attempts to reconnect with an old ex from eleven years in his past, whom he left without notice. Failing to find what he wants and visibly irritated by his wife and son back home, he follows a voice that breaks him out of his banal trance only to find that it belongs to a woman come all the way from Akron, Ohio to attend his talk. From there on, the film creates a blend of the surprisingly personal and the quotidian nightmarish to form a character study that works on multiple levels.
There is animation used for achieving what live action simply cannot, and then there is animation for the sake of appealing to the younger audiences. Charlie Kaufman and his animator Duke Johnson employ it here for neither: the characters are quite obviously puppet-like and intended to be so, and the material being handled is hardly for the eyes of children. And unlike Disney or Studio Ghibli, the animation used is of the stop-motion variety, something only few directors like Wes Anderson have used to their advantage, that too for indulging in the whimsies of the story. Duke Johnson, therefore, here attempting to create quite the opposite, is quite restricted in the way their characters move and perceive things around them. However, the magical realism realised in Anomalisa is heightened by this use of puppets whose visibly lined faces flawlessly translate emotions across the human range, and result in the already introspective story feeling more human than it already is. Using the same basic faces for all players apart from Michael and Lisa, it also elevates what started out as an audio drama by Kaufman, in visualising the mundaneness as Michael sees it.
The very reason why the film touches all of our hearts and remains relatable to everyone is the character of Michael, who is sure to be seen in different lights by different people. He expresses a facet of human nature that all of us have donned at some point: one that has convinced himself that he is special and unlike anyone else around him. This is a strongly felt theme throughout Kaufman’s piece, reducing all humans as seen through Michael’s eyes to bland and unoriginal copies, something all the more pronounced when he finally meets that ‘one other different person’ in Lisa: an anomaly, his Anomalisa. The film does not ask of you to like the protagonist or feel for him when he is in the clutches of the boredom that every person offers him, although you would surely not be conceited in doing so. It is an open portrayal that all of us can cling on to, for that narcissistic misery of life is present in all of us, to varying degrees. Michael Stone is a character we can all relate to, in this century where our Great Depression is a literal one within ourselves, as we drift farther away from each other by the day. We are fooled and driven into illusion along with him, and the splash of cold water hits us as hard as it does him. It is a story of a man depressed by life around him, only to finally understand that the problem was within all along.
A truly heart-breaking film, Anomalisa carries the same atmosphere of existential dread that Kaufman is masterful at putting to screen. Not really falling into any particular genre, it is a slice from the life of a man uncertain about almost everything he does and everyone he meets. What starts out with a bleak yet chuckle-worthy joke unravels into a powerful piece of human tragedy that elicits a bittersweet feeling in its viewers, making them spend some time looking into their own hearts. The film itself, not unlike what Lisa is to Michael at first sight, is an anomaly: a tale carrying itself with a most ordinary voice and yet is made of moments that break from reality. In fact, the only moment of excited tension is one where Kaufman puts to work his expert penchant for horror of distorted realities. You might feel bored at times toward the beginning of the film, but as I understand, that is again the aim of the film: to draw you into its sombre mood to make each nuance of the protagonist’s odd journey resonate. This is achieved through an incredibly gentle execution, heartfelt and aching every moment of the way. Kaufman is seen here at his most poignant: he intersperses raw emotion with the gritty realities of everyday existence quite cleverly.
Anomalisa has many strange secrets within it, though it makes no attempt to hide any of it. It is a difficult film to explain, for its unique blend of the mundane and the bizarre. Taking us inside the head of a man at odds with his existence, it asks us to search within ourselves only to find the very same struggle that its protagonist faces. A meditative film that effortlessly steps in and out of reality, what Kaufman’s latest masterpiece leaves us with is a sadness so sweet that we are drawn to be broken by it. An emotion crafted within the mind of its singular maker and voiced by just three, Anomalisa is oddly touching and amidst all its weirdness, is the closest to home of all of his work. If you enjoy being in the space created by Being John Malkovich or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, you will definitely love this one.