This is not how I am; I have become comfortably numb
Roger Waters, 1979
Charlie Kaufman‘s latest film, Anomalisa, is an understated piece from the award winning screen writer. In his second role as director, Kaufman is joined by Duke Johnson to produce this heavy stop-motion feature based on a 2005 play of the same name.
The film is set almost entirely over the course of one evening spent in a hotel room Cincinnati hotel where the protagonist, Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), a famous self-help author seeks to find human connection in a world where everybody else looks the same. This is until he meets a sweet and unconfident young woman, Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), who unlike all the other characters has a unique face, voice and a sky childish honesty. Stone is immediately drawn to her as an escape from the familiarity of everyone that he meets that seems to be causing his feelings of isolation. In Lisa, Stone sees an escape from his tired routine, and a reason for hope and joy.
Michael Stone: I think you’re extraordinary.
Michael Stone: I don’t know yet, it’s just obvious to me that you are.
Despite the serious themes, the film is consistently funny, with plenty of dry-wit and dark humor. It is through the tired eyes of the educated traveler that the all-so-familiar rituals of a bland work trip interstate are poked fun at through Stone’s frustration. However, his desire to be left alone in peace and quiet from the hospitality staff is ironically contrasted with his need for simple human connection that he spends the whole evening and day-thereafter seeking.
In scale, Anomalisa is juxtaposed to Kaufman’s previous work – Synechdoche New York (2008) – which follows the drawn-out life and death of the protagonist: Caden Cotard. Cotard’s desire for his life to be made significant through his work is echoed by his never ceasing attempts at grandeur and honesty in an all encompassing theater piece. He is never content with the simple small human connections in and of themselves, instead, Cotard seeks something big and bold often at the expense of true human interaction with his family and closest friends. Anomalisa’s Michael Stone by contrast seems to have given up on the grand, and is desperate for connection, a hug – and some..
In a 2015 interview, Kaufman and Johnston explain how the most difficult part of the production was filming the sex scene that took over six-months. The challenge was made even harder by trying to avoid connections to that oh-so famous Team America: World Police (2004) montage. Too often intimate scenes in films are forced to be either funny or passionately erotic; however, here, a simple tone is carefully presented where a basic human connection is shown by balancing their genuine affection for each other with the sadness of the situation, including Stone’s adultery. The use of stop-motion figurines paradoxically enables the directors to present somewhat ‘universal’ characters that the viewer is able to connect to without the distraction of a human actor.
The theme of not being able to being able to distinguish between faces is based on a real condition – Prosopagnosia – famously suffered from by portrait artist Chuck Close. However, the viewer is asked to question whether in-fact everybody is actually the same, or whether Stone cannot determine the differences in their faces – perhaps due to his
disengagement from others’ lives. Or perhaps even more so, that Stone is the only person in this fictional world that is truly alive in seeing that everyone else is the same. Or finally, is it that Stone asks too much of the world and others?
The film ends with his wife reminding a disengaged Stone, “Don’t you realize we all love you“. To which we are forced to question whether asking for something new, exciting and different is genuinely as important as simply loving others and being loved in return.
Perhaps the final irony of this film is that despite Stone seeing everybody as the same, this movie is distinctive in its quiet ability to capture both a person’s disconnection with the world and their desire for human’s connection.
Being John Malkovich (1999) – Disturbingly entertaining and more than entertainingly disturbing.
Human Nature (2001) – Far better than it looked; but unfortunately it watched no better than it looked.
Adaptation (2002) – If you can tell me what it all means – you are a liar; if you can tell me you didn’t enjoy being taken on a trip down the garden path – you too are a liar.
Confession of a Dangerous Mind (2002) – Such a perfectly unbelievable true-story, even with Clooney‘s directorial debut as a Coen brothers disciple he couldn’t do any true harm to Kaufman’s modified script.
Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind (2004) – Not your average rom-com – as the greater the plot twists, the tighter the knots of love and loss.
Synecdoche, New York (2008) – Directorial debut and epic navel-gazing true horror film about dying without living in the quest for greatness and meaning.