Words by Jonathon Smith
Charlie Kaufman clearly has a strong attachment to the concept of identity. He focused on the obsession with celebrity in Being John Malkovich and delved into the idea of individuality within duality in Adaption. In each he was able to touch upon the truth about self and understanding how the world around us helps mould our identity, on both a broader public scale and a pained personal one. Now he brings us his most deft and subtle work to date, the stop-motion feature, Anomalisa.
Michael Stone (David Thewlis) is a motivational speaker on a routine trip to Cincanatti, Ohio. His world is bleak and grim. Everything is always the same, the scenes, the sounds and especially the people. Indeed, everyone in this whole world is exactly the same, right down to the face and voice (Everyone, as it is credited, is voiced by Tom Noonan). Then as everything appears to be at its bleakest, there comes an individual amongst the endless sea of the sameness: Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
Immediately we are presented with thoughts back to Kaufman’s work on Being John Malkovich and that image of everyone wearing the face of the titular actor. Here things are far less narcissistic and far more frightening. Stone is bored with a world he thinks he’s figured out and that is his greatest flaw; he thinks he’s solved the riddle of life. He’s, supposedly, got a highly attractive wife and bright young son, an easy living from speaking and writing and thus he is no longer challenged by anything. Anomalies are few and far between for Michael.
The first one he sees in Cincinnati is a Japanese sex toy which stands out as something perverse, unusual and altogether different. He buys it as a gift for his son – who has, ironically, asked for a ‘toy’ from his father’s trip – but it is more than a narrative loose end in need of tying up, it is a demonstration of the tightness of Kaufman’s writing. What he is presenting to us is a marker for the unusual, the queer, the downright strange. In this world of normality and repetitiveness, there is room for the sub-normal.
This is where Lisa enters the fray. She is imperfect, scarred, with a streak of red in her hair, not confident in the slightest, or in the best shape or even the most pleasant to be around and to Michael that is absolutely perfect. It is completely what he needs and longs for and after she scrutinises him over it, she accepts that maybe this man really does like her for who she is. These two need each other and it looks like we are on the cusp of a love for the ages like Brief Encounter or, more closely to this film, Lost in Translation. Unfortunately things begin to fall apart.
Michael Stone’s character is shown to be a snide man, angry at the world for his flaws when it is in fact a highly indifferent entity. It is what Michael has taken out of life that has resulted in the manifestation of everything being so deeply tedious. He is responsible for the faceless denizens of this ongoing dullness. That reality comes home to roost in the final part of the film, which intriguingly, never quite seems to reveal its hand fully.
We know, through Kaufman’s previous work that the story will be witty and filled with both charm and harsh realities, but we are always guessing as the nature of why things are the way they are. For every existential irony there is a Kaftka-esc possibility and indeed we are long taken down a path of Orwellian proportions inside the film. But within this carefully plotted work, it is once again the work of the writer/director – and I deliberately put the latter first – that shines through. His ability to juggle charm with deep unpleasantness is terrific and his ability to make stop-motion animation feel live and so very, very human is an extraordinary achievement.
That is not to say that stop-motion is incapable of conveying humanity, but if we look upon the most recent stop motion hits like Tim Burton’s work (Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride, Frankenweenie) or Wallace and Gromit, the fashion is to use other devices, ghouls and gags if you will, to convey the humanity underneath. Anomalisa though simply tells its story in an affective and beautiful way, using the animation aspect to subvert our expectations and undermine what we anticipate from such an animated form. Credit for this goes, not just to Kaufman, but also this co-director, the animation maestro Duke Johnson. They bring, for lack of a better phrase, a human touch to the piece.
Anomalisa is at once sad and twice spellbinding. It is a cautionary tale, warning of the road we may take if we continue down a path of sterilised living, censoring ourselves from greater risks, building ourselves into individual units: us and everyone else. It is a film that affirms that life is worth living, not viewing through a screen or vicariously through others, but by ourselves and for ourselves. Risks are real, but, every so often, they’re worth taking, because they make us feel alive.