A guy who thinks everyone’s the same meets a gal who’s different. That could be the TV listing for Charlie Kaufman’s extraordinary new film and latest weirdness, Anomalisa.
If you’ve just finished watching the film (and we’re assuming you’ve seen it at least once if you’re reading this article) then it’s probably safe to say that you undoubtedly have some questions. For instance, what was the purpose of the Japanese(?) robot he gets in the sex store? What was the purpose of the Cindy Lauper song? What should we make of the dream sequence? Too heavy handed and direct, or a necessary explanation of the themes? What the hell is going on? Though, before we dive into all that, let’s back up for a moment.
Most Charlie Kaufman movies are tricky to write about because they’re too certifiably insane to summarize—just trying to explain what happens in Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, or Synecdoche, New York can exhaust a hefty word count. Anomalisa, by contrast, is relatively simple, at least in concept. But that concept, which originated in a play Kaufman wrote for composer Carter Burwell’s Theater Of The New Ear some years ago, is best experienced with an absence of preconceived ideas, allowing its disorienting strangeness to sneak up on you.
Start with the fact that in a world that looks otherwise real and natural, the leading man — motivational speaker Michael Stone — and all the folks around him are literally puppets, which are animated in stop-motion.
And except for Michael, they not only look the same — think crash-test dummies with different clothes and hairstyles — but they sound the same, too. His seatmate on the plane, the cabbie who picks him up at the airport, Michael’s wife on the phone, his 5-year-old son, every staffer at his hotel, the characters in a movie on TV, an ex-girlfriend he gets in touch with — everyone.
Ultimately, while in the shower at his hotel, Michael hears something remarkable, that takes him utterly by surprise: a woman’s voice, but more than that, a different voice. Lisa, voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh. In a world of same, she’s an anomaly — Anomalisa. Michael excitedly runs down the hallway, knocking on doors to no avail until, behind one, he hears her voice again, and invites her (and her roommate as an afterthought) to join him for a drink. Michael is smitten, and Lisa is too.
In short, Anomalisa is focused around malaise, fleeting passion, and the feeling of loneliness you can have when surrounded by others. Michael has reached a point where he has lost the zest for life, and everyone around him has just become part of the wallpaper. He then meets Lisa, who is different to everyone else. And in meeting her he rediscovers that zest. He remembers what he’s lost, and it’s revitalizing. He begins to find his own purpose as a result of what he sees in her. However, it is a fleeting feeling, and as he discovers more about her he feels less and less invigorated by her. He starts noticing the flaws that make her human, that make her like everyone else. And as he notices more and more of these, she becomes more and more human, and he hears her just like everyone else. She is no longer this glorious anomaly that can give him purpose, she’s just human like everyone else.
The film ends with Michael leaving Lisa and returning home to his mundane family (and inadvertently giving his son a Japanese sex toy). Perhaps the geisha doll serves as a more direct example of Michael’s romanticizing of Lisa. He’s so enamored with the doll on a visual level that he fails to notice that it’s apparently an exotic sex toy (with semen leakage and all).
It seems the viewer is meant to realize that we can’t define ourselves through other people, and if we want to find some kind of purpose or reason for our existence, it’s not going to come from an external influence. To do that you need to put someone on an unrealistic pedestal that they’ll never live up to. You could extrapolate from that that Kaufman thinks fulfillment needs to come from an internal source, something inside you rather than another person, though Kaufman clearly doesn’t go as far as to preach solutions to the audience. He is more exploring the feeling and headspace that people end up in, instead of trying to fix a problem.
From another point of view, this movie seemed to be attempting some commentary about the masks we wear and the monotony of life. And Michael is clearly more sensitive to the monotony than others. That could be due to his job, customer service, which really is pure fakeness. Michael is an expert at being phoney and fake-kind to people just to manipulate for another end (like he was hinting in his speech meltdown); namely money in the business world. And to be good at customer service, you have to be able to read people, be in tune to their “differences” and individuality, so you can basically exploit it to “connect” with them and win them over.
So who knows, maybe that constant fakeness burned him out more than the average person. And that’s why he has problems – why he finds it hard to connect or even tolerate interacting with other humans. Perhaps it ruined him from human interactions since to him they’ve been pounded and viewed in the light of insincere transactions. But at the end of the day, he’s the one missing out. He admits to possibly having psychological problems, so, at least at some level he knows it’s him that’s the problem. And at least it seemed Lisa might have gained something from this, even just to have been special for one night. (And thankfully she got to see his meltdown, so she perhaps didn’t take the rejection personally.)
With all that being said, we want to hear from you guys. What did you think of Anomalisa’s rather ambiguous conclusion (and everything leading up to it)? Do you have your own thoughts, theories, explanations or questions? Let us know in the comment section below.