Film critique: “Anomalisa” (co-directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, 2016)

A review of a review: is Anthony Lane correct about ‘Anomalisa’?

This is an unsolicited review of noted New Yorker magazine film critic Anthony Lane’s own review of the striking film, ‘Anomalisa’ (“Gloom and Doom,” Jan. 18, p. 78). The issue goes back to intellectual currents of the 1950s and 60s involving the question whether modern man and woman are more the product of society or of the human condition. Was our predicament then, and still now, that “modern man is a mechanized being” who resembles “robotic dolls,” that is, people “carved out and beaten down by a consumer society,” which is Lane’s understanding of Anomalisa? Or, as I perceive what Kaufman is up to, that modern man (or at least the defeated hero in this film) fails in the existential quest for human connection, becoming incurably solipsistic. Put differently, are we all the complete product of a system, or else instances of stymied consciousness that imagines the world to be hopeless when the enemy is only our lack of courage to choose to connect with other people? In 50s-60s talk: were the Marxists correct or the Existentialists? Is the problem a systemic anomie or a lack of the individual’s will to overcome our essential solitude?

Lane’s introduction is brilliant. Anomalisa, he says, “is set in five places: an airplane, a taxi, a hotel, a sex shop, and a family home. In other words, this is the story of a business trip.” Michael Stone, the beaten-down protagonist, is an idolized guru on the vexed issue of sales: “How May I Help You Help Them?” or, in plainer words, what’s the way to make customers think you really care about them and get them to buy stuff? ‘Treat them like family’ etc., of course, is his advice.

But in contrast with his bouncy PR personality, Michael in private is a desperately lonely, alienated person. Lucky for him (or not, since ultimately this becomes another episode in his sad existence), a few doors down in the hotel are a couple of woman friends there for the meeting, one an attractive young middle-aged woman, Emily, the second, the ugly duckling ingénue Lisa.

Men always prefer the more attractive Emily, says Lisa, but Michael finds Lisa irresistible. The issue is why. Emily is like everyone else in Michael’s world. All of them, women as well as men, talk in the same droning male voice (provided by Tom Noonan. Anomalisa is — part of its stimulating effect — an animated film shot in stop-motion). Michael’s voice is David Thewlis’s. To Michael, everyone else is the same, boring, alienated and alienating. Except the unexpected Lisa. Lisa is a little miracle: she has her own voice, a banal, inexperienced young woman’s voice (provided by actress Jennifer Jason Leigh). Michael is astonished. He falls hard for her. He realizes, as Lane says, that she’s “a unique soul other than himself.” They make contact, or begin to. They talk a bit in Michael’s room and then make love. (Imagine a realistic sex scene between animated characters.) But this human connection, like everything else in Michael’s life, will, and does end badly, at least for him. Not far ahead in the film, Lisa’s unique female voice suddenly becomes the ubiquitous male voice of everyone else in Michael’s world. He, in other words, has screwed himself again. Michael says it just won’t work and they part.

The film ends with Lisa and Emily in a car driving home. Lisa knows she’s had an enriching experience. She’s met a fabulous self-help customer service guru who thought she, a plain girl in sales, is unique. There was a brief genuine human contact in her sentimental education. Then he dropped her. She was at first disappointed but now realizes it’s too bad for him. She’s on her way to the future. She’s a free agent with her whole life ahead of her. Michael, by contrast, arrives home to a surprise party that his boring wife has set up. Everyone is boring, he doesn’t like them anyway and knows they don’t really like him.

Lane ends with an unexpected opinion, that Lisa is a revelation of authorial intent. “Seldom…does Kaufman just want to have fun, but as he lifts the spell of his gloom, a surprising beauty breaks through.” That’s the end of Lane’s review.

Come again? Why would Kaufman throw in surprising beauty at the end?
Lane seems to be implying that writer/director Kaufman after all lacks the courage of his own gloom. With its happy ending, Anomalisa becomes at bottom a commercial film, even if kind of artsy. Or at least a feminist commercial film.

Anomalisa is a strange name and a strange title for a film. It’s the nickname Michael invented for her before turning her into just another flat character out of the cookie-cutter world of his own mind. He had at first perceived her as an “anomaly” among the dead souls and hoped this time he had found a soul mate, someone really real, so he calls her Anomalisa and she loves it. Until his solipsistic mindset degrades her uniqueness as with every other person in his life.

Gloom and doom or freedom and connection? Inescapability of capitalist commercial society or existential forging of community? I think Kaufman’s Lisa, the surprising beauty, is a statement that solipsism is not man’s fate. It certainly is Michael’s condition but that’s his own fault, or rather his psychology, however it came to be that way. The world as it is or could be for each of us is filled with all sorts of real people, places and things — like Lisa.