screenplay by Charlie Kaufman
directed by Duke Johnson & Charlie Kaufman
by Walter Chaw Writing about a Charlie Kaufman film, if you do it honestly, is writing about yourself. I've said before and it helps me to repeat it that I don't really understand Kaufman's films but that they do understand me. Kaufman is the most important, innovative voice in American cinema since Orson Welles, and though he has enjoyed more autonomy in expressing that voice than Welles, I would argue that the seven years separating his directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, and this follow-up, a stop-motion collaboration with Duke Johnson called Anomalisa, suggest that it's not as easy as it should be. Certainly the journey that Anomalisa has taken is far from conventional, from Kaufman play written under the pseudonym "Francis Fregosi," through a Kickstarter campaign, through the general challenge of making an adult-themed animation in a country that sees animation as a genre not a medium, to now this tour of festivals, looking for distribution. The play was introduced as part of a Carter Burwell project titled "Theater of the New Ear". It was a late replacement on a Kaufman/Coen Bros. double-bill when the Coens "dropped out" at the eleventh hour, and this unknown Fregosi's piece took its place.
Anomalisa starts with business author Michael (voiced by David Thewlis) on a flight to Cincinnati to give a speech about strategies in customer service. He appears to be well-known and respected in his field. As he wheels his luggage through his hotel lobby (named for its pseudonymous author in one of Kaufman's endless, perplexing, reflexive in-jokes), he hears people whisper his name and part before him. He calls his wife from his room. You begin to notice, and this is already saying too much, that everyone else in the film is voiced by Tom Noonan. If this seems disorienting and disturbing, it's both of those things. He calls an old flame. It's a bad idea. He meets two women who have travelled there to hear him speak, one of whom, Lisa, has Jennifer Jason Leigh's voice instead of Tom Noonan's. This is fascinating to Michael. He courts her. He buys her and her friend endless apple mojitos. He invites her back to his room for a nightcap, and it's revealed that Lisa hasn't had sex in eight years; her last boyfriend was much older (like Michael) and went after her because he figured she'd be easy to get. She was.
The pain in Anomalisa is tactile. Its loneliness is immense. Words are difficult and misunderstandings are common. Michael tries to communicate with his cab driver, only to have the cabbie fail to understand him because of his English accent. It's one of Kaufman's hallmarks and it plays here wonderfully. Michael speaks to regret. The entire film is a bad memory and desperation for absolution. He asks the driver if there's a toy store close to his hotel and the cabbie giggles and tells him that there is--a 24-hour one. We understand this misunderstanding. It's one of the few that we do. So Michael goes and purchases an ancient Japanese clockwork geisha. (There is something ineffably disquieting about a puppet buying a clockwork.) Lisa is deformed. She hides it with her hair. Michael asks her if he can kiss it and Lisa is frightened. He asks her if she'll sing for him because he can't stop listening to her voice, and so she sings him a Cyndi Lauper song. Not the one you would expect. And it's unbelievably sad and broken.
Anomalisa is funny, as all of Kaufman's films are funny. And it's full of existential horror, as all of Kaufman's films are. Michael has a dream in the picture's only night sequence. It comes after gets out of the shower and looks into the bathroom mirror: his lower face begins to jitter and contort. There is a moment where he almost sees through to the reality of what he is (plastic mounted on an armature), where Blake's idea of an "infernal method"--an artist's presence in his hand against his medium--is nearly literalized. Michael's dream is that everyone in the world is one person who sounds like Tom Noonan...and looks like Tom Noonan, now that you mention it. His dream is that they all want to keep him away from Lisa because Lisa is an anomaly. It sets up a conflict, or it would in a different film, in which it all turns out to be a Philip K. Dick nightmare of machineries and metal gods, with the last real boys and girls on the run. If Anomalisa were a Grant Morrison comic, you would see the hand of the artist--like John Cusack's puppeteer looming over his Heloise and Abelard from Being John Malkovich. But because this is a Kaufman, it becomes clear that the problem is Michael's and, in a morning-after sequence that is almost as wretchedly devastating as the previous night is painful and awkward, Lisa becomes not an anomaly. Not to Michael.
Kaufman's work will eventually coalesce into a diary of the modern man and as clear a statement about existentialism as Kierkegaard and Kafka before him. He's an essayist of fear and trembling. Anomalisa continues themes begun in Being John Malkovich of the creator's role in the life of his creations. In the murmured conversations that Michael has with his lover, hear the dial-tone whispering of Adaptation.. It's a love story like the doomed love story of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; and it's a chronicle of the terror of obsolescence winking into nothing like Synecdoche, New York. It's a difficult film to know and an easy one to admire. Note a visual joke midway through when Michael looks out a window to see a billboard advertising the Cincinnati Zoo. Consider that the joke is on one level funny, repeating a stupid thing the cab driver said on the way to the hotel, and then frightening for how the monkey has Tom Noonan's face and for how advertising slogans, no matter how stupid, appear to have infected all of the "group" swimming outside of Michael's consciousness. Anomalisa is a dense text that rewards scholarship. It's a mirror held up to our loneliness and desire and fear. It knows about the things under the bed. I would be surprised if I saw a better movie this year.