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Double Take: The slow burn of Charlie Kaufman’s newest film, ‘Anomalisa’

Anomalisa is writer-director Charlie Kaufman’s seventh feature film after a string of heady movies like Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation. (2002), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004).

The 90-minute, stop-motion animation film, which Kaufman shares the directorial helm with Duke Johnson, features puppets in the starring roles and sustains the warped realism and neurotic sense of humor integral to Kaufman’s brand.

The movie centers on the melancholic Michael Stone, author of a successful customer service bible, “How Can I Help You Help Them?” Stone leaves his wife and young son behind to travel to Cincinnati for a day to deliver a speech. during a customer service convention. While in Ohio, Stone meets a customer service representative named Lisa, to whom he finds he has an intense, emotional connection — a sensation that he hasn’t experienced with anyone in a long time.

In this Double Takes installment, writers Meerah Powell and Emerson Malone share their thoughts on Anomalisa.     

Spoilers ahead.

Meerah Powell:

I am rarely in the minority when it comes to liking a movie. In fact I’m usually pretty open-minded and relatively passive when it comes to enjoying overly-hyped, new films.

This was not the case, at first, with Charlie Kaufman’s newest film, Anomalisa.

While Kaufman’s creative use of surrealism rings true for Anomalisa as well as his past works, the character development and connections seemed to fall short for a film from the mind of Kaufman.

Anomalisa touches on the topics of love, intimacy and human connection in doubtlessly interesting ways. Michael Stone is someone for whom it is hard to feel any personal connection to or care about in any way. Stone has similarities with Joel Barish, Jim Carrey’s character from Eternal Sunshine, in the way that Stone is also searching for a personal existential meaning through another human being (though Barish does it in a much more lovable way).

Though Anomalisa and Eternal Sunshine offer some similar characters, Anomalisa focuses solely on Stone’s perspective, which is, at times, so pessimistic and selfish that it’s hard to enjoy, and thus makes all other characters one-dimensional in its wake.

In Eternal Sunshine, Barish’s love interest, Clementine Kruczynski, is painted as an autonomous agent, having her own hopes and desires (see Kruczynski’s iconic quote: “Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s looking for my own peace of mind. Don’t assign me yours.”) In Anomalisa though, Stone’s love interest, Lisa, serves solely as a tool to provide more insight into Stone’s own psyche — exacerbating his egoism to no end.

The protagonist served as a bleak window into Anomalisa, the visual aspects of the film were top-notch. The use of stop-motion animation in Anomalisa isn’t an arbitrary choice; it adds to the tedium of the dull life that Stone wanders through, and piles on to the psychological and emotional isolation that Stone faces.

Throughout the film, every character that Stone interacts with, save for Lisa, has the exact same face and voice. This adds some disorientation to the film that further illuminates Stone’s disconnect with other human beings, though also further highlights Stone’s selfish nature and  potential superiority complex.

Overall, Anomalisa provides a potent look into the dissociation one can feel towards other people and intimate connections by using haunting stop-motion animation and minimal, sometimes absurd dialogue.

Days after seeing this movie, it comes eminently clear how compelling Anomalisa actually was. I want to love a movie from first viewing and that was not something that happened with this film. I don’t want to have to go back and realize a movie is a masterpiece, but the slow-burning Anomalisa might just be one.

Emerson Malone:

Anomalisa is Kaufman’s simplest and most matured movie to date.

Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis, perhaps known best as Prof. Lupin from the Harry Potter series) carries himself with a self-defeating slouch. From the first moment he’s onscreen, strangers are trying to engage him in conversation or even make physical advances on him — the person seated beside him on the airplane, the cab driver, the hotel’s bellhop — but he’s too callous for socializing.

The irony of Stone’s character is his preference to be alone, despite his public success as a world-famous customer-service representative and published author. It doesn’t help that everyone else is voiced with lukewarm drabness by actor Tom Noonan, and are virtually identical. Apart from minor variations in costume and hair, every character — male, female, and child — are basically carbon copies of one another.

It’s a cornerstone of Kaufman’s style that he slides obscure, intellectual references into the story, and Anomalisa continues the trend. Michael’s inn for the night, the “Hotel Fregoli,” is named for the Fregoli delusion — the paranoid belief that everyone else in the world is the same person in various disguises. (Kaufman did the same thing in Synecdoche, naming his protagonist Caden Cotard, after Cotard’s syndrome — the delusion that one may be dead.)

It’s alienating to be with Stone in this world, surrounded by the identical puppets that colonize it. That’s why it’s so jarring when Lisa, voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh, comes into the story. She’s awkward and achingly hard on herself (“I’m not even sure I should say words in front of you because you’ll see how dumb I am… Shut up Lisa!”), but her voice effortlessly, incidentally, seduces Michael. The emphasis on actors’ voices and the overall soundscape within Michael’s world makes it no surprise that Anomalisa was originally written as a radio play before a Kickstarter campaign picked it up off the ground.

Kaufman’s writing still relies on the same old tent poles that supported Eternal Sunshine or Adaptation.; Anomalisa still focuses on the lonely, middle-aged man, whose disquieted existence, rife with malaise, is disrupted with the introduction of the manic-pixie-dream-girl, a trope that Kaufman would usually skewer.

But any would-be cliché is instantly forgivable, since the execution of Anomalisa is near-perfect. Composer Carter Burwell’s score is elegant and glum, and it perfectly underlines the hotel’s stale ambiance; the manner with which these puppets independently walk around, string-free, is a marvel; Kaufman’s expertise for world-building has never been more fully developed and realized than in Anomalisa.

And unlike other puppet-driven movies like Team America: World Police or even Coraline, the characters here aren’t remotely intended to resemble humans, since their faces still bear the splitting seams across their eyes that demonstrate that they’re still just plastic contraptions. But when there are close-ups on Lisa’s or Michael’s faces, they still bear wrinkles. For a film about the profound nature of human life, it just so happens that the actors are all puppets.

Watch the Anomalisa trailer here:


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Emerson Malone

Emerson Malone