I saw Charlie Kaufman's Anomalisa with three friends of mine, all of us in our early twenties. Upon finishing the film, half of our company left bitterly disappointed. They didn't think the movie was an objectively bad one, but something about it wasn't sitting right with them. Another friend and I caught on to a different quality: a humble excellence, a quiet masterpiece of a film- but one that we couldn't fully identify with. And that was by no means the fault of Anomalisa.
Charlie Kaufman is a singular artist. Since his feature film debut in 1999, he's written seven movies and directed just two of those seven. His body of work is unmistakable: no other filmmaker has created anything close to the rare quality of a Kaufman film.
Kaufman's art twists life into atypical forms, but he always manages to extract some essential truth about humanity through them. His screenplay for Being John Malkovich explored themes concerning the nature of the self by transporting characters inside the literal head of a known actor; the seminal story of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind offered a potent portrayal of romance by means of a sci-fi memory erasing machine; his directorial debut Synecdoche, New York was a movie about a play about reality that questioned our own existence.
And now seven years after that last film, Kaufman has gifted us with Anomalisa: a bleak, unique representation of a midlife existential crisis that digs into the deepest despair and most difficult hope of the human experience.
But this time, there is no strange narrative conceit. Anomalisa is from start to finish about a phase of life that most people suffer through. This is the reason that some of my friends were frustrated with the film; why my fellow cinephile and I couldn't identify with it. Kaufman's latest work depicts disillusionment with adult life and with the dwindling number of special people involved in it. My 20-something friends and I have nowhere near experienced this yet.
Although there may be no narrative oddity driving this movie, the ways in which its central character's crisis is painted are far, far from normal.
Anomalisa follows Michael Stone, a British author of a popular self-help book for people in service industries, starting with a night at a Cincinnati hotel before he speaks at a customer service convention. Michael is distant, dissatisfied with his family life, and seems to lack a discernible connection to any other human being.
Before you notice these facets of Michael's character, however, you'll notice that this is a stop-motion film. A stop-motion world, populated by puppets. Not the typical medium for expressing such mature and depressing themes.
But this medium is utilized brilliantly to convey Kaufman's desolate vision of middle-aged humanity. To convince you of this, I'd have to give so many of Anomalisa's little surprises away. I'll just say this: the specific construction of the stop-motion puppets and peculiar voice work behind them perfectly create the world as it is in Michael's head. What we see is life from the perspective of a man who is losing the ability to discern what is special about each person; who has given up on remembering how to truly connect with someone else. It's magical.
Michael's glum outlook on life does grow a little weary during the movie's first act. Kaufman's screenplay spends a lot of time in the expositional stage convincing us of Michael's depression, dipping ever so slightly from profundity into boredom. A bevy of sarcastic jokes keeps the first 30 minutes from getting too tedious though. Other than during a slightly on the nose speech that spells out the movie's themes a bit too clearly, that was the only time I wasn't enraptured.
After Michael meets Lisa- a young, self-deprecating fan of his work and the first person to appear unique to him in ages- Anomalisa delves thoroughly into an expedition of human connection: why it matters so much, why we crave it, why we lose it, and what keeps us from fighting for it. Not only is it enduringly original in style, its message is vivid in its stark reality.
Even if you can't identify with the period of life that Anomalisa so remarkably epitomizes, the film serves as a warning against a despondency we must work hard to avoid as people, as communicators of genuine humanity- lest it be what we inevitably expect as the years pass us by.