Anomalisa begins on chatter over a black screen. This chatter is clearly multiple people, but the voices are distinctly similar to each other. This fades in on a lush cloudscape with an airplane emerging out of the grey. Inside the plane is Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a man famous for writing a book about good customer service.
Michael lives in a world of isolation. On a trip to give a self-help speech, he is completely alone in his hotel room. He is reminded of a woman he once had an affair with who lives in Cincinnati, the city he happens to be in. He calls his wife and son on the phone, but he appears distant. This sets up a romantic endeavor and an undoing that Michael cannot fully comprehend.
The animation style in this film is distinct. It is puppetry with little attention given to hiding the lines on the face that allow for the shifting of facial expressions. Despite this purposeful loose end, characters and sets are textured beautifully.
Regular Kaufman-isms crop up in Anomalisa. Confusing repetitions of characters and images add a level of surreal to what would otherwise be a realistic scenario. Conversations skew to the awkward in non-conventional ways.
Also in keeping with Kaufman’s work, the film splits toward the meta. Reality bends in small moments and, at times, snaps entirely.
Beyond these meta diversions and Kaufman-isms, the film’s narrative is rather simple. We get an analysis of loneliness through these neurotic characters who stumble through conversations just to find some sort of connection. Kaufman succeeds in humanizing puppet people, but the story he tells is simple in comparison to his more ambitious projects. Until reality finally breaks down in earnest, the film is your standard love affair story.
This is not to say that the film is unsuccessful in telling the story it wishes to tell. The character of Michael is complex, and, as he experiences his undoing, he becomes both real and surreal simultaneously. His reality becomes a confusion. His life exists in a psychological chaos, but it is his perceptions that cause this outcome.
Anomalisa brings Kaufman’s usual style to a conventional narrative. What comes of it is an interesting look into the lonely psyche. Where the film becomes disjointed is its meta element, which probes at something larger than what the film actually tackles. The larger philosophy of the film becomes muddy when you view the film from this meta level. But strong animation and a narrative unique to animation makes the film an eye-opening viewing experience. In short, Kaufman makes puppets human in a way not often seen on film.
Perhaps I am scrutinizing Kaufman too much given the majesty of his prior filmography. Anomalisa is still a beautiful looking film that explores the human condition in deep ways. And the connection between beautiful animation and the realism of humanity makes the film starkly real given its inherent unreal mode of visual representation.
I just didn’t get what I expected from Kaufman. I almost did with the meta diversions, but these meta points don’t perfectly weave into the reality of the story he tells. With a stronger connection between meta/surreal elements and the humanity of the narrative, Anomalisa may have been the perfect animated film. But, even without this, it is still an amazing animated feat that is worth your time.
Anomalisa is available to rent or buy on Amazon Video here.
As always, thanks for reading!
Have you seen Anomalisa? If so, what did you think? Let me know in the comments!
—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)