CINEPHILIA: Anomalisa is relatable, funny, and poignant

Stop-motion animation captures Michael’s suffocating nightmare of blandness.

We uncomfortably identify with Michael Snow, our self-centered and predatory protagonist of Anomalisa: his neuroses, egoism, and disillusionment. Whether female or male, family or stranger, friend or foe, to Michael every face, voice, and personality is ubiquitous and indistinguishable. His wife looks the same as a generic male host at a hotel; his son sounds exactly like a faceless stranger in a crowd. In Michael’s suffocating nightmare, he is trapped in a bland setting with bland acquaintances, and a bland routine.

Then, while on a brief trip in Cincinnati to do a talk on customer service, Lisa emerges, like Madeleine in Vertigo, or Daisy from The Great Gatsby — except rather than being stunningly beautiful or mesmerizingly enigmatic, Michael’s dream girl is inscrutably average, not particularly smart, cultured, or gorgeous. A fascinating dichotomy emerges between Lisa, who is the anomaly, and Michael because her uniqueness lies in her mediocrity; she has the only face and voice that stands out among the crowd, yet she is the same kind of person you might meet in passing and almost immediately forget.

From an original voice in contemporary cinema — Charlie Kaufman, the director of Synecdoche, New York and the writer of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless MindAnomalisa is one of the most formally rousing and narratively creative animated films of the decade, and perhaps one of the most tender and heartbreaking, too.

Similar to the rest of Kaufman’s oeuvre, Anomalisa uses a radical concept to illustrate a simple conflict. Synecdoche, New York created an infinite regress of narratives within narratives to externalize a theatre director’s nihilistic worldview, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind went into a man’s fractured memory to look at the history of a doomed romance. Anomalisa uses inventive animation and its identical-face-and-voice gimmick to tell a subversive take on the disillusioned-man-meets-dream-girl narrative.

The stylistic choice to tell this sombre dramedy with stop-motion animation subtly builds Michael’s subjectivity, as the puppet figures and miniature production design border on a realism that is interrupted by uncanny quirks — a slit that separates faces between the upper and lower of half of the eyes, or slightly mechanical movements. It’s a subjective perception that doesn’t use expressionistic or surreal signifiers like many films and paintings, but one with uninterrupted long-takes, naturalistic (puppet) nudity, and an attention to realistic lighting and colorization, which is so unlike other animated films.

This tension between the surreal and banal extends to the film’s storytelling, where we are entrenched in a man’s fractured subjectivity yet also immersed in the mundanity of the world around him. Although there is a hilarious self-awareness of the film’s concept, with particular funny moments where his wife and young son speak with a very deep, male voice, most of the humor comes from the character’s inescapable boredom: Cincinnati’s tourist attractions are their “zoo-sized zoo” and the world-class chili; Michael struggles to order room service when all the icons on the hotel phone look alike.

The world’s beauty, uniqueness, and warmth lies beyond our disillusioned perception. We must choose to see others as individuals, to connect to them beyond the level of the sex doll that Michael brings home for his son after the trip. If you’ve ever been frustrated by a hotel room lock, had a creepy stranger hold your hand on a plane, or exchanged awkward small-talk, Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa will be funny in its tediousness, poignant in its banality, and relatable in its mundanity.