Charlie Kaufman is an acquired taste. He is undoubtedly brilliant, but his work often doesn’t operate too well with those not prepared to view the world through his off-kilter gaze. His world view has provided some terrific screenplays, namely in his collaborations with Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) and Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and he proved himself to be an quality potent director with Synecdoche, New York. You have to be prepared for his style, his approach, otherwise it can send you on a ride that you may not particularly stay on board with throughout its course. That may well be what happened to me as I sat down to take in Anomalisa. My expectations were set more to receive something with a but more Jonze-esque whimsy injected into it; what I got was full blown Kaufman, and that sometimes isn’t the easiest of pills to swallow.
Set in 2005, the film follows self-help author Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis). Michael, despite having a family and great success as a supposed problem-solver, is in something of a depressive spiral, one which has manifested itself in an usual way; everyone he encounters has the same voice and very little to distinguish them as individual personalities. While travelling for a convention, Michael believes he may have found a glimmer of hope in the form of the timid yet enthusiastic Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who has come to attend Michael’s conference.
This film, it must be noted, is not entirely a Kaufman joint. It is based on a play of the same name written by Kaufman, but it is co-directed by Duke Johnson. Johnson, the man behind Community’s stop-motion Christmas episode, is clearly a key contributor in being the puppet characters of Anomalisa to uncanny life. Anomalisa undoubtedly represents Kaufman at his most technically accomplished, although it could well be that Johnson deserves most of the credit for the simply stunning puppetry on display, considering it is very much his field of work. None the less, the look and movement of the puppets enable Kaufman’s thematic concerns to illustrate themselves through various means, be it plainly seeing the lines in which the face masks are attached, or removing a face altogether. It is an expertly crafted film, one which makes this a far more interesting endeavour than if it had just been live-action.
There are a number of beautiful and very witty moments in Kaufman’s script, one which explores the human condition in an original fashion, but one which ends up being a little too cynical to handle. Kaufman chooses to focus on the psychological effect of an individual who has become incredibly self-absorbed, no longer concerned with forming or maintaining relationships in his life (the hotel Michael stays at is called The Fregoli, also a name of a mental disorder in which an individual holds a delusional belief that everyone is the same person). This characterisation immediately makes Michael an unlike-able protagonist. The choice of Thewlis for the voice of Michael is both inspired and creepy, as we witness this man attempt to find hope, but ultimately squander it, a man who is perhaps beyond help. It makes the proceedings decidedly bleak to experience, with many moments of the final third spiralling out of control along with Michael, resulting in a denouement that ends up being somewhat grating to watch.
What is impressive about Anomalisa is its smaller details. The conversations that Michael has with complete strangers are often very well observed, as is normally the case with Kaufman. The whole design of the world is also very sophisticated in its sparse and authentic arrangement. Much has also been made regarding the love scene within the film, and it is one that is much more genuine than one would find in most live-action pictures, with it and other scenes (namely Jason Leigh’s rendition of ‘Girl’s Just Want to Have Fun’) conveying a raw emotionality that is often lacking from more straight-forward dramas.
Anomalisa has frustrated me since I saw it last month. I desperately wanted to love it and embrace it, but just when I thought I was about to, it stretched out its arms and kept me away from truly forming something meaningful for myself. Its view of the world is not one that inspires much hope, and while I respect that that is somewhat the point, it nonetheless dampened my experience and left me in one hell of a funk when leaving the cinema. This has much to do with its draining final third, as much of what comes before it is simply beautiful. As a whole, it is a film unlike any other even in regards to Kaufman. It may frustrate, but there is something very human at play here, and something definitely worth exploring. Just be prepared.
3/5– While masterfully crafted and often very well observed, Anomalisa unfortunately leaves one with a hard, bitter taste, making it difficult to embrace.