‘Anomalisa’ amazes with poignancy and psychological evisceration

By Nate Taskin

(Anomalisa official Facebook page)
(Anomalisa official Facebook page)

If I were to pick you apart, piece by piece, what manner of gears would rest inside you? Are we even programmed for connection? What happens when we short-circuit, and the creases in our hardware become visible? Where does the fault lie when we perceive every other human as an indistinguishable automaton? How poisonous is this train of thought?

Fear not, for after an excruciating eight-year absence from cinema, writer-director Charlie Kaufman has arrived with “Anomalisa” to assuage our collective fears that the universe is a big nothing, and that we all die alone.

Well, he might amplify those worries, too, because like all Kaufman joints, this new film aches with pain and sadness. “Anomalisa” takes a scalpel and tears into the membrane. In doing so, the film reveals all of the ugly toxicity that comes with depressive solipsism so that a dim ray of light can pour through.

Don’t be like Michael Stone. Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), a motivational speaker who works in conjunction with the customer service industry, flies from city to city to promote his self-help book. Stone has a problem: every person he encounters, male or female, has the same face and the same voice. The film opens with a crescendo of identical sounds and pummels the viewer with mundane conversation. This bombardment of sameness is the hell that Stone must endure, and he does so with exasperated ennui and a glazed-over expression in his eyes.

On a business trip to Cincinnati, Stone takes up shop in a hotel room, where, amidst the uniformity of expression and speech, he hears a unique voice. This anomaly is named Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh). She’s frumpily dressed and insecure about a scar on her face, yet these features cause Stone to fall in love with her, or at least the idea of her. She’s someone new, someone different.

I can imagine where your mind might be going. Make no mistake; this is not a Manic Pixie Dream Girl movie. Thankfully, “Anomalisa” is far from some Sundance schlock about how a middle-aged man is rejuvenated by an unconventional younger woman, with all his flaws validated along the way. The film makes it clear that Stone’s worldview is wholly distorted and detrimental to himself and those around him – even his wife and child are victims of his inability to differentiate.

“Anomalisa” showcases the true nightmare that is the male fantasy, and how Stone’s ego causes him to place Lisa on a pedestal, only to knock her off when her faults become more visible. An individual human, filled with a complex assortment of levers and screws, always has more going on that we’ll ever give credit for. When confronted with our failure to connect with others, we only have ourselves to blame.

It’s odd that one of the most human movies of the decade is told entirely through stop-motion puppetry. Superb animation captures the beautifully ugly monotony of simply being. Airplanes drive forward one frame at a time, an entire city looks like a doll’s house, food slithers down the throat, chairs jitter as they creak, eyebrows swivel, lips are pursed, eyes narrow and genitals sag.

With the aid of his co-director Duke Johnson, Kaufman makes Stone and Lisa’s faces contort and breathe with identifiable shifts in body language and expression. They burst with realness, yet Kaufman and Johnson allow us to see the artifice hidden behind their veneers. A crack runs along their noses and across their foreheads. Stone tugs at this plate of skin in the mirror, yet he relents from digging deeper. Deep down, he knows the truth. For all his intellectual pomposity, he’s no less special than anyone else. We all are composed of the same nuts and bolts.

“It’s boring,” Stone wails at dinner with a former girlfriend. “It’s all so boring.” The film agrees with him. Stone’s trapped in a hell of his own design – one where simple acts like the need to order room service becomes tedious. “Anomalisa” acts more cautionary than celebratory in its approach to its subject matter, yet in its final moments Kaufman offers a pocket of sunshine so that we know life doesn’t always have to be insufferable.

After he released the wonderful, sprawling masterpiece that was “Synecdoche, New York” in 2008, Charlie Kaufman faced weighty expectations for his next feature. While “Synecdoche” may remain his definitive statement, “Anomalisa” expands on his philosophy and carries that distinctive brand of surrealism, humor and pain.

Kaufman, perhaps the greatest artistic genius this side of Kanye West, dissects the ugly ID of humanity, yet contextualizes it with empathy. Raised on Old Testament values (something I can certainly relate to), the director projects his fear of instantaneous world destruction and uses it as a transformative way to avoid misery rather than dwell in it. This planet is inhospitable and resists accommodations, and Kaufman suggests we might as well find people to spend it together with, because there are more of them than we may think.

And the result is a movie like “Anomalisa”: a meticulous, handcrafted puppet show where, at the curtain call, we are allowed to see the strings.

Nate Taskin can be reached at [email protected]