I’m not the only one who went through a Charlie Kaufman phase, right? For many of us who were pretentious teenager in the 2000s, Kaufman provided recognition of how smart we all were. Being John Malkovich and Adaptation have plenty of nuance, but for my oh-so-deep self, the important part was how the protagonists’ brilliance went unrecognized. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has just enough headiness and doomed romance to connect to such a mindset, jumping around the human psyche to demonstrate that we might never understand why we love who we love.
The question I have to ask after seeing Anomalisa is, who has changed more? Have I grown up ever so slightly and seen through the lurking narcissism of Kaufman’s unrecognized geniuses? Or has Kaufman lost some of his nuance? The answer is probably “yes.” If I had seen Anomalisa three years ago, when the project was a 40-minute film backed on Kickstarter—which, full disclosure, I contributed to—I would have enjoyed it more. Well, unless all of the pomp occurs in the 50 minutes that directors Duke Johnson and Kaufman added to bring the movie to feature length. But now, I’m an adult*, and I’ve seen too many Anomalisas to be swayed.
The first troublesome sign of Anomalisa is the mundane protagonist, Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis). He is clearly smarter and better than everyone around him because he’s a Charlie Kaufman protagonist. Okay, I’m being unfair. He’s a keynote speaker at a customer service conference, and he pities himself because of the pointlessness of (his) existence. He doesn’t care much about his son, and he pursues several affairs, succeeding in one. There’s also a small issue where everyone else has Tom Noonan’s voice.
That last bit is intriguing and played for solid laughs. Noonan gives each character a mix of individuality and uniformity, which fits with the medium of stop-motion animation. Hearing Stone’s ex berate him in Noonan’s eerily calm cadence helps the viewer emphasize with the protagonist. Further, it gives a sense of urgency to his attraction to Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the only other character not voiced by Noonan. Yet, when Lisa begins to blend in with everyone else, the themes turn from questions of why individuals grab our attention to how much Stone sucks.
The thematic change wouldn’t be an issue if the movie weren’t simultaneously desperate to show how much Stone sucks and unwilling to bring him to task for it. While I don’t think movies need to be morality plays, Anomalisa follows Stone well past the question of why Lisa is so special; instead, the focus is how she becomes just like everyone else, and that’s the complete arc of Stone’s character. He has a moment where things might pick up, but they all come crashing back down, because Stone is just too deep for life to work out. And honestly, who cares? Do we need another movie analyzing the depth of a self-centered, “deep” male protagonist? Maybe I’m missing something, but from my perspective, Anomalisa is either a 90-minute character analysis of a sad-sack—of which there are already plenty of movies, thank you very much—or a masturbatory exercise in justifying one’s own self-absorption.
Perhaps I’ve spent too much time talking about Stone rather than the titular anomaly, Lisa. Her character disappoints as well. She’s meant to represent the same ideas already tackled with more nuance in Eternal Sunshine: to quote a coworker who probably wasn’t purposefully quoting Selena Gomez, “The heart wants what it wants.” Attraction and intrigue are hard to explain. Yet, in emphasizing that Stone has no reason to be attracted to Lisa outside of her voice, she becomes a mere object of the story, rather than a complete character. She’s self-admittedly not traditionally attractive (not that we can tell, because, well, puppets) or intelligent. She doesn’t care about anything “deeper,” unlike the introspective Stone. She’s just a fan.
And maybe that’d all be fine if the centerpiece of the movie weren’t an extensive seduction/sex scene in Stone’s hotel room. After a night of drinking, Stone invites Lisa over, and she is uncomfortable. Stone is obsessed with her because her voice is different—a point emphasized by the script’s constant references to the (dis)pleasure of hearing others’ Noonan-y voices over the phone—and appears to be manipulating Lisa. The power dynamic between them is disproportionate, and her reluctance does not feel playful. The sex scene itself is intimate and beautiful, an echo of Her‘s: the distance provided by using animation allows for explicit detail without being written off as “pornographic.” But the grossness of the context negates the potential beauty of this scene, one that does capture the intimacy and communicative possibilities of healthy sexual intercourse.
Further, Stone’s only counterargument to Lisa’s self-effacement is that she has value because…he values her. While the point might have been to show that we don’t know why we’re attracted to certain people, the lack of depth for Lisa and focus on Stone’s physical attraction to her undercuts it all. When Stone is bored by Lisa but the runtime is far from finished, you have to wonder what the point of it all is. The reasonable answer is that it’s either a slice-of-life story of a douchebag, or a vanity project for the self-important teenager inside us all.
This review is pretty harsh, and admittedly Anomalisa isn’t a “bad movie.” The animation is beautiful, and the directors are patient with movement and storytelling. The whole world breathes, but also has a layer of artificiality in keeping with Stone’s perceptions. The medium is used to great effect, playing with reality to provide a psychological portrait of a man. It just so happens that the portrait is derivative, and the pondering takes second place to self-indulgence. Anomalisa went through many changes from its humble beginnings as a 40-minute pet project, but in doing so has revealed the limitations that have long been present in Kaufman’s work.
*Adult is defined here as “not at all an adult.”