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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Anomalisa movie review: maximal mundanity

Anomalisa green light

An astonishing, even perception-altering experience that represents a startling use of animation to tell a story that no live-action film could tell.
I’m “biast” (pro): love Charlie Kaufman’s work

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Here’s a thing about being caught unawares by movies: It doesn’t happen all that often. Obviously. If most movies were surprising, then we wouldn’t be surprised when they are. But most movies are not surprising. Most movies tell same-old stories in same-old ways. But to not know what you’re looking at or why what you’re looking at is being presented to you in such an extraordinary way? To not know where this can possibly go? When that happens, it reminds you why you fell in love with the movies in the first place, and how infrequently that love is genuinely engaged.

The story that Anomalisa tells is, in fact, at its core, pretty same-old. (It’s a male midlife crisis thing, which is, for some reason that is downright mysterious, a theme that intellectual middle-aged male filmmakers return to again and again.) The way it tells that story, however, turns it into an astonishing, even perception-altering experience. It could infect the way you see the real world in a way that is hard to shake. It represents a startling use of animation to tell a story that no live-action film could tell… or at least not a live-action film that wasn’t so heavily CGI’d that it became more animated than live anyway.

This is the second feature film from Charlie Kaufman as director (after Synecdoche, New York), who wrote such mind-bending movies as Adaptation and Being John Malkovich, so if you’re expecting anything at all, it might be something fantastical. Yet the first noteworthy thing about Anomalisa is the maximal mundanity in what it’s showing us. We follow Michael Stone (the voice of David Thewlis: Regression, Legend) as he arrives on a commercial passenger flight into Cincinnati, complete with the usual scripted welcome announcement from the captain. There’s nary a step of Michael’s journey that is omitted. He rides the moving sidewalk at the airport while fiddling with his iPod. He grabs a taxi and engages in small talk with the driver. He checks into his hotel; we are there as he hands over his credit card to the desk clerk “for incidentals.” He rides the elevator with the bellhop — more small talk — then fumbles through that awkward moment when the bellhop pretends to be surprised that he’s being offered a tip even though he was clearly waiting around for one. Michael takes a piss; orders room service; ambles down the hall to the ice machine. He does some routine things that impart to us that he is here on business, and that his business is customer service, which may be the most uninteresting business to be in. And this is all animated, using miniature stop-motion puppets… yet it’s as realistic as this sort of animation can get. Bodies are not stylized. Environments are recognizable: Michael’s hotel room, in which much of the story occurs, is a perfect example of the sort of personality-free “style” we’re all familiar with in hotels; ditto the other primary location, the hotel bar. It’s as if Kaufman — who codirected with Duke Johnson — is challenging us to really notice Michael’s world, in which every banal detail, of the physical domain and of human interaction, has been replicated with the sort of loving care that only an animated movie would do. If nothing else, Anomalisa is a veritable triumph of cinematic appreciation for the ordinary sort of ordinary that is actively designed to be both ordinary and unnoticed.

(Anomalisa is also a direct challenge to the notion that so many people seem to hold, that animated movies are only for children. This one contains tons of bad language, realistic puppet nudity, and a fairly graphic scene in which realistically human puppets engage in one of the most authentically awkward sex scenes ever committed to film. This movie is most emphatically not for kids.)

It’s all so ordinary that you almost don’t realize this at first, and it eventually strikes you not with a smack of awareness but with a tiny nudge of doubt: Is this really what I’ve been seeing and hearing? Surely, it’s my imagination? But it isn’t: Every other person in this world has the same face. Hairstyles and clothing are different, of course, but everyone looks the same. And do they all have the same voice? Men and women alike? They do! (Tom Noonan [Synecdoche, New York, Seraphim Falls] does all the other voices.) It isn’t only this hotel that is beige and boring: it is Michael’s whole world… or, at least, his experience of the world. Is he depressed? Is he tired? Is he mentally ill? (There is a thing called Fregoli syndrome, which according to Wikipedia is “the delusional belief that different people are in fact a single person who is in disguise.” But despite an allusion to that here — the hotel is called the Fregoli, and in fact Kaufman wrote the radio play this is based on under the pseudonym Francis Fregoli — that’s plainly not what is going on with Michael. He knows these are all different people. They just don’t register with him as people, not as real people, or at least not different from one another in any meaningful way.)

But then the flatness of Michael’s existence is shattered when he hears a different voice, and when he finds her, the woman it belongs to has a different face. It turns out that Lisa Hesselman (the voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh: The Hateful Eight, Welcome to Me) is staying at the hotel with a work friend, and they are both there to hear Michael’s speech about customer service the next day. And they are in awe of him: he’s like a rock star to them. Michael has no interest in the friend: she has the same face and voice as everyone else. So it’s not merely the hero worship that intrigues him. “Your voice is like magic,” he tells Lisa, even when she is talking about the most humdrum of things, which is all she has to talk about: to us, she doesn’t appear very clever or funny or interesting.

So is Anomalisa’s striking visual and auditory take on Michael’s perspective on the world a metaphor for attraction? I think we all know the experience of someone standing out as special to you even though others wonder what you see in them. Or: “You’re the only other person in the world!” Michael tells Lisa at one point, so maybe this is an embodiment of that delusion we all find ourselves wallowing in sometimes, that only I am real and everyone else is somehow fake, a puppet, not really alive? (Or is that just me?) Is Michael just craving novelty in his dull life and will take it wherever he can find it? Is this a parable of how desperate alone every single one of us is, no matter how surrounded by other people we are?

The true marvel of Anomalisa is that it is open to many interpretations, all of them valid. For me, I found that the sympathy for Michael the film engendered for me early on got tossed out later, and I found ultimately him to be a terrible man, though still in a way that was interesting as a character study. I suspect everyone who sees this film will have a different reaction to Michael’s plight and where his connection with Lisa takes him. And that may be the most extraordinary thing about Anomalisa, that it doesn’t feel the need to take you by the hand to a foregone conclusion, but leaves it up to you.

first viewed during the 59th BFI London Film Festival

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Anomalisa for its representation of girls and women.

green light 5 stars

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Anomalisa (2015)
US/Can release: Dec 30 2015
UK/Ire release: Mar 11 2016

MPAA: rated R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity and language
BBFC: rated 15 (strong sex, sex references, strong language)

viewed at a public multiplex screening

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • amanohyo

    Other than the impressively subtle and realistic stop motion animation and “set” design, this was a perfect example of a boring story told in an predictable way. Yes, it is mundane on purpose as you point out, but I found myself almost immediately frustrated by the Michael character. Complicating my experience watching this is the fact that my name is Michael and other people do sometimes fade into an undifferentiated mass to the point where I lose track of who I am talking to.


    Of course, it’s unfair to expect a movie to accurately replicate my own experience, however the most annoying thing about Michael is that he never asks any interesting questions. His entire world is built out of small talk, and even when he is supposedly fascinated by an original voice, he doesn’t delve beneath the surface in his interactions with Lisa. Kaufman uses sex as a shorthand for intellectual and emotional intimacy – the awkward nature of Michael’s hotel hookup is supposed to contrast with the smooth, featureless, automatic nature of his communication in the rest of the movie, but the over the top manufactured awkwardness simply feels like a different kind of bland program. He’s incapable of generating any genuine emotion or interest in other people – everyone is a doll to him, an object.

    Think about Michael’s situation for a moment. Everyone that you know eventually appears to have the same face and voice. Does that make humanity less fascinating? Not in the slightest. All of the people he talks to, including the taxi driver, seem like potentially genuinely interesting people and his refusal to acknowledge their obvious individuality or explore the boundaries of his condition is infuriating. The implication that the sound of a voice and the shape of a face are the sole defining characteristics in his social universe indicates that he is suffering from some form of immature solipsism. He is unwilling or unable to acknowledge how interesting and weird other people are – the world has become boring because he is a boring guy who never asks questions of those around him and he projects that boredom onto everyone he meets.

    I had high hopes that once Lisa appeared, they would have a genuine complicated interaction of equals that would finally open his (and Kaufman’s) perspective, but the only way Michael is able to approach anything resembling genuine communication is through sex, which is a disturbingly limited view of human intimacy. The structure of the plot also makes all of the events of the movie a forgone conclusion which constrains Lisa’s agency considerably. Of course she’s going to be infatuated by the guest of honor, of course they’re going to have awkward sex, of course he’s eventually going to project his own boring, superficial personality onto her and decide to stay with his wife. The entire movie turns out to be another example of him going through the motions without ever escaping his limited conception of the world.

    I was also disappointed that there weren’t more trippy scenes involving the masks. I suppose it would have clashed with the mundane tone, but I would have appreciated some freaky faceless lovemaking or face cracking/switching/inverting in the dream scene. It could have driven home how broken and flawed the Michael character is and would have taken better advantage of the animation. Obviously, I’m projecting some of my own issues onto Michael, but it really was a wasted opportunity for Kaufman. The annoying thing about his movies is that they are solipsistic and limited in perspective by design. Watching them is like being trapped inside a fractured mind that keeps breaking through walls only to find another endless hall of mirrors.


    So clearly, I wasn’t ever able to muster much sympathy for Michael. He lives in a hell of his own making. I didn’t feel that the film left the conclusion up to the viewer – it’s obvious by the end that it is Michael who has trapped himself in a universe of artificial surfaces while all the other characters like Lisa go on with their lives, free to interact in a more genuine and authentically human way. Anyone who watches this and truly thinks about it in relation to the real world would feel pity, anger, and frustration regarding Michael and his plight.

    Kaufman’s screenplays are hermetic to the point of losing any meaningful connection to reality. Back in the days of Being John Malkovitch and Eternal Sunshine, that approach was fresh, but starting with Adaptation, it ironically started to feel as if he was just slapping a bunch of different masks on top of the same person, namely himself. That’s what infuriates me the most – I had high hopes at the start that the brilliant animation would be used to tell an interesting story, but once again I was treated to an on-rails tour of the self-centered, self-referential, self-contained Charlie Kaufman bubble. Open your eyes and look another person Mich… I mean Charlie! Most of the stories out there are a lot more interesting than watching you once again chase your own mildly neurotic tail in endlessly tightening spirals. The animation and voice acting are superb and make this worth watching; however, everything else was deeply disappointing and depressingly predictable both in the context of the movie itself and in the context of Kaufman’s increasingly monotonous body of work.

  • Kaufman uses sex as a shorthand for intellectual and emotional intimacy

    Is Kaufman doing that, though, or is Michael?

    The entire movie turns out to be another example of him going through the motions without ever escaping his limited conception of the world.

    And that’s what makes it a tragedy.

    Anyone who watches this and truly thinks about it in relation to the real world would feel pity, anger, and frustration regarding Michael and his plight.

    That’s how I felt too, but I suspect that there are some people who will look at this — perhaps mostly men, because of the position of privilege and relative power that Michael is operating from — and *will* see it more sympathetically. Perhaps that might prompt some introspective in them. Perhaps not.

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