‘What is it to be human?’
Anomalisa is a masterpiece of cinema – a tale about the human condition told by puppets that is the most real movie in years. We’ve all had awkward encounters – be that with ex-partners, conversations with strangers in a lift or the force-fed wisdom of a brusque taxi driver. We’ve all (hopefully) had a moment where you meet someone who, somehow and somewhere deep inside of yourself, you innately know that ‘this person is important to my future’. Now imagine a film that has the later as its main storyline but is layered with lots and lots of the former. That’s Anomalisa. It’s hilarious and sad at the same time, just like life, whilst reflecting on how bitterly lonely existence can be. Artistic greatness channelled through stop-motion puppetry.
It’s 2005. Michael Stone (David Thewlis), customer service consultant extraordinaire, is travelling to Cincinnati for a convention at which he is due to speak. To Michael everyone else on the planet appears to have the identical voices and faces. He is just spending one night at the hotel before travelling back home to his wife (Tom Noonan) and child (Tom Noonan. He decides that, as he’s in the area and plagued by self-hate, he’ll call up his old flame Bella (Tom Noonan) in the hope that Bella will help him find out what is wrong with him. Things do not go well, but upon retreating to his hotel room he hears a voice that is different from everyone else. He searches desperately and finds Lisa Hesselman (Jennifer Jason Leigh. Michael is instantly enraptured by her different voice and face, desperately hoping that she will cure his crippling loneliness.
This film, written and co-directed by Charlie Kaufman, does not have to try hard to be strange. Everything about it is strange, but that’s not criticism when you really reflect on how strange life often is. The most obvious ‘strange’ aspect is the fact the entire world is only voiced by three people – Thewlis as our lead, Jason Leigh supporting and Noonan as everyone else. Have one actor voicing 98% of this world has the most wondrously bleak effect, allowing for everyone else to blur in the background. They are unimportant therefore there characters are not defined, which is how our protagonist Michael Stone views the world. Few central characters are this self-hating, haunted by guilt and bad memories. Did the voices always sound the same, or has life for Michael etched away its beautiful nuances?
The interactions with both strangers and those who are supposedly the closed to him are all so affecting in there believability – many of them of the concealing-your-eyes-as-you-watch variety. But it is Michael’s interactions with Lisa that are the most beautiful and the most heart-breaking. Lisa is the exact opposite of Michael, Lisa is insecure and desperately lacking in confidence, yet is just as lonely as he is. Lisa is a great admirer or Michael’s and an obsessive reader of his book which helped her increase work ‘productivity by 90%’! The beginning of their courtship is so tenderly handled, and perhaps the most human we’ll see on the big screen this year. Lisa’s serenading Michael with a cover of ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ will fill your eyes with tears. The film’s title stems from this point of the movie, when Lisa reveals she has always felt like an ‘anomaly’ which Michael then teams with ‘Lisa’ to form her self-appointed nickname ‘Anomalisa’. This conversation alone personifies their relationship, Michael and the film itself. Is he laughing at her by giving her this name, or showing just how much he understands?
Watching Anomalisa is almost like watching an autopsy or listening to a psychiatrist’s evaluation – cutting apart our very psychology, our brains and being, then showing us how they work. Like The Matrix it’s up to you whether you take the blue or red pill.
Breathtakingly beautiful and bitter in equal measure; dare you see it?