by Philip Price
Who is Michael Stone? It is the question we can't help but to ask after he arrives at an upscale hotel in Cincinnati in Charlie Kaufman's first stop-motion film. We ask this due to the fact we have followed this man from his flight, through the airport, on a cab ride and into the lobby where other guests whisper his name as he walks by. We come to learn that Stone is a speaker famous for a book he published about customer service. As mundane as this sounds it is, of course, with some purpose as Kaufman's entire exploration of the character of Stone has to deal with the mundanity of life in general. As with the majority of projects written by Kaufman (“Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation”) and the one he's directed prior (“Synecdoche, New York”) “Anomalisa” also deals with themes of identity, mortality, our relationships with other people and the big question that is, "what is the meaning of life?" This latest experiment scales things back to a simpler form though, where the complexities of these existential ponderings aren't all-consuming. Rather, they come in the form of keen observations that perfectly summarize the vapidness of the majority of our interactions on a daily basis. This, paired with the chosen visual style of the film is rather inspired as not only does it allow Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson the chance to visually illustrate what might have otherwise been conveyed through dialogue, but it also allows a rather uninteresting story to be told in an interesting fashion.
At first, the stop-motion style of storytelling seems insignificant and only out of the interest of doing something unique, but we quickly come to recognize why Kaufman has chosen this approach. The character design is sure to make any audience member recall an animatronic they may have seen in some other film or Chuck E. Cheese, but what is more interesting is zeroing in on the voice work behind these robotic faces. It becomes clear quite quickly that everyone Stone (who is voiced by David Thewlis) interacts with, man or woman, has the same exact voice (provided by Tom Noonan). The combined effect of these people's appearance and the alluded to similarities between our Western society and robots stand as one point in an observation of our existence while the same vocal performance from every character besides Stone is done in order to make clear the exception to the routine. The anomaly.
Kaufman, in his writing, makes it evident early that his central character is not pleased with the state of his life at the moment. The devil is in the details, but while the details of Stone's life may represent the most problematic aspects for him, for us, they are the most insightful moments of the film. This is most true in the early scenes where Stone stands still on a skywalk and is forced to drown out the loud family in front of him with his headphones before hopping into a cab where he is forced to deal with a driver that enjoys pleasantries. Stone is not a "small talk" type of guy, but while he is polite to the cab driver we can see and hear the irritation in Stone's responses rising as the exchange becomes more and more vacuous. At this point, I thought to myself that it might have been more interesting to see this film play out with real people and real environments so as to get a better sense of the situations Kaufman was painting on screen, but once we hit the half hour mark what is obvious by the end is made more clear. We are introduced to Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who's not only entirely pleasant, but the first individual that Stone sees in a different light.
It would be easy to dismiss Kaufman as a complete cynic, but more in line with what his actual disposition is would seem to be the idea that our psyche is ever-evolving and so to make any one, definite stance or decision about anything would be foolish. He's not a pessimist, he's just cautious. You could say then that it is strange he would put his thoughts down in something as concrete as a feature film that will live on for decades if not longer, but the point of “Anomalisa” is to illustrate the simple perspective that life is worth living if for nothing else, but finding what will deviate us from what we expect. This seems to be a fact Kaufman has found to be true no matter what stage of life he's encountered. The charm is in the surprises life holds and that is what Lisa serves as for our bored protagonist who feels he's living a rather unremarkable existence. As such views are displayed through the lens of Kaufman-esque scrutiny in as basic a fashion as one could expect from the auteur, Kaufman succumbs to the temptation of sharing his own critical thinking by providing multiple perspectives on the situation at hand. In doing this, Kaufman admits to the fact love is the one indisputable goal of everyone on the planet, but also intends to show what makes this emotion valid in a society of excess.
Again, we come around to the root word of the title. An anomaly is something that deviates from what is standard and the film does it's grandest to provide a portrait of a man who has come to find nothing exciting in his comfortable world and thus a lack of any real urge to keep on existing. He needs an anomaly to make him realize once again that there are exceptions in this sea of sameness he's swimming in. While “Anomalisa” could come off as just another "white people problems" ode to the privileged who have to create their own drama to find their life interesting it is able to surpass this label by conveying these natural thoughts (What is it to be human? What is it to ache? What is it to be alive?) in fresh and unexpected ways.
Admittedly, Kaufman and Johnson have to push their limits by having these animated characters have sex with one another (only to conjure up thoughts of “Team America: World Police”) instead of hammering home their connection on an intellectual level by creating a conversation that transcends their standard, vapid interactions we've see plenty of examples of. I understand the need to show and solidify the connection of Stone and his exception on a deeper, physical level, but it goes on for such a time it feels rather indulgent to the point the film will be remembered for this instance rather than the ideas this instance was trying to convey. Of course, I may just be at a certain stage in my own life where I still have enough time left in front of me that I don't view the world with as much of a dark or despairing attitude as Stone does (to the point you can only find real pleasure and happiness in a one night stand), but as Kaufman is pointing out I understand the fact that I will only continue to evolve and learn and may or may not change my opinion on this assessment of our existence. As I stand right now, “Anomalisa” is a precisely observed and effortlessly paced affair that delivers what it wants to say about the notable moments in our lives without being notable itself.