Thursday, July 21, 2016

We're All Puppets

Films: Anomalisa
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

There are movies that frustrate me. The whole string of them is probably too long to mention, but the fact that it happens is worth mentioning. Anomalisa is the latest in that list. This is a movie that by all rights I’m supposed to like. The fact that an R-rated animated movie was nominated for Best Animated Feature is the sort of thing I’m supposed to like as well; I’ve commented in the past something to the effect that Best Animated Feature is essentially “Best Kids’ Movie” every year and that the Academy never looks beyond that for this category. Here they did. That’s good—it expands the category in a meaningful way. And yet there’s something about Anomalisa that I find difficult. It took me far too long to get through this movie, and I’m still not sure why.

Anomalisa is a story of a loss of connection from reality and the world and a desperate search for that connection. More prosaically, it’s an exploration of the Fregoli delusion, a strange combination of paranoia and persecution complex in which the person suffering the delusions beings to believe that different people are, in fact, the same person in disguise. This is ground that writer/director Charlie Kaufman touched on in that brief “Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich” sequence in Being John Malkovich. In that respect, it’s not hard to see a direct line between Kaufman’s earlier work and this one.

This started as something like a play, actually something closer to readers’ theater. To capitalize on the idea of the Fregoli delusion, two of the characters in the film are played by specific actors while a third actor plays every other role. When this was originally staged, the main role of Michael Stone was played by David Thewlis, Lisa by Jennifer Jason Leigh, and everyone else by Tom Noonan. For the animated film version, we have the same people in the same roles.

Michael Stone is a middle-aged customer service expert on tour with a new book on the field. He has arrived in Cincinnati to promote this book at a convention, but seems detached from the entire process. To him, everyone looks and sounds the same and there’s not really much worth caring about. He’s distant from his wife, who is still at home with their young son, neither of whom seem to be that connected with Michael, either. He calls up an old girlfriend on whom he disappeared one day, and has a painful and ugly reunion with her. Eventually, he discovers two women in a nearby room on his floor. The women are attending the convention. One of the women, Lisa, suddenly doesn’t have the same face and voice as everyone else. She looks and sounds like herself and Michael feels a connection to her.

That connection might be born of many things. Michael, despite his expertise in his field, is constantly unsure of himself and insecure. So is Lisa, who constantly brushes her hair over her right eye to hide a scar. There is a vulnerability to both of them; Michael simply hides his better, or at least finds less need to hide this because of his success as a self-help author. And yet, such is his delusion that eventually Lisa starts to look and sound just like everyone else, too. Michael starts to lose touch even with the small amount of genuine human contact he’s had.

Anomalisa, the name coming from a nickname Michael gives to Lisa, calling her an anomaly because she doesn’t look or sound like everyone else, is the sort of film that could really only be done as an animated feature. It’s important to the narrative that everyone who isn’t Michael or Lisa looks and sounds exactly the same. Sure, with modern technology it could probably be pulled off, but animation is perfect for the story. It makes sense. Going with stop-motion puppets created on 3D printers is interesting and perhaps noteworthy. It does give the film a unique look and a slight dip into the uncanny valley. This makes the stop-motion puppet cunnilingus scene a bit off-putting. (And for the record, "stop-motion puppet cunnilingus scene" is a phrase of which I couldn't have conceived at the start of this blog...and now I've written it twice. Hooray for new experiences!)

There’s a touch of irony in the fact that I feel like I can’t quite connect with a movie that is all about losing connections with real people in the real world. I think we’re supposed to connect to Michael and I simply don’t. It’s a problem I have with a few of Kaufman’s films. I know I’m supposed to like them, but sometimes they just don’t work for me. I’ve seen five films that he’s directed, and right now I like three and am more ambivalent on two, Anomalisa being one of those two.

I don’t know what it is. I guess I expected more. I respect the story and the way it was filmed, but I have a hard time getting to the point where I claim to like it.

Why to watch Anomalisa: It’s a good story.
Why not to watch: There’s something about it that’s like biting on tin foil for me.


  1. "This makes the stop-motion puppet cunnilingus scene a bit off-putting. (And for the record, 'stop-motion puppet cunnilingus scene' is a phrase of which I couldn't have conceived at the start of this blog...and now I've written it twice. Hooray for new experiences!)"

    I'm reminded of "Team America: World Police."

    1. I know of it, and also know exactly why it was created. Anyway, that's marionette sex, not stop-motion sex. And Team America isn't what most people would consider a serious movie about real existential issues. It's different enough.

  2. I found this movie extremely frustrating. There's so much talent in the animation, and I can respect what Kaufman was trying to do. Even so, I found it difficult to care at all for Michael Stone. I also just found it slow and off-putting. I'm still surprised by my reaction, but it didn't click with me.

    1. That sums it up pretty well for me. I found it incredibly difficult to get through, especially at the end. The last 20 minutes or so were just brutal for me.