Anomalisa (2015)

Directed by Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson


Anomalisa is a very delicate film, handling its damaged characters’ emotions with the same delicate touch required to even film the stop motion animation.  In an interview with NPR, Charlie Kaufman described how the animation style emphasizes the “fragility and humanity and brokenness” of the characters and the central, universal story.

Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), is in town in Cincinnati for a single night to give a speech the following day on Customer Service at a conference that sounds too boring to describe here in detail.  He himself is bored out of his mind by just about everything.  He even says as much to his wife.  To help put us in Michael’s head, every single character in the film (except for eventually one woman) has the same exact voice (that of Tom Noonan).  It’s not a bad voice.  At first it’s kind of soothing, but the more we here it, the more ominous and irritating it gets.  Michael calls up an old girlfriend, whose break up letter from ten years earlier he still holds with him as if in a form of self-loathing.  She haunts his mind, and her voice is that of the person next to him on the plane.  Even Michael’s wife and son have that same damn voice.  So when Michael calls up his old girlfriend, he can’t tell if it’s her on the phone because she could be anyone.

His ex is hyper insecure, making sure he knows she’s gained weight so she won’t be surprised when he sees her.  While getting a drink at the hotel bar, it becomes more obvious that Michael abandoned her in some regard, but we don’t know why.  Their conversation is incredibly tender and painful, and ultimately she leaves, deeming this to have been a bad idea.

Back at in his hotel room, Michael hears a woman’s voice out in the hall.  He falls over as he hurriedly tries to dress himself to find this magical women who has enough of herself left to stand out to him.  It’s not clear why she keeps her voice (from Michael’s point of view), but he takes it as a sign.  It has likely been years since Michael could identify another unique voice other than the one he hears every day, so he leaps at this opportunity.

The woman turns out to be Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is in town with a friend, Emily (again Tom Noonan), to hear Michael’s speech the following day.  Both women are enthralled with Michael’s visit, and when they go back to the hotel bar, Emily is the one hanging onto Michael’s arm.  He sensitively tries to distance himself from her and ask Lisa back to his room.  This is where Lisa’s insecurity, like that of Michael’s ex-girlfriend, really shines through.  She asks if he’s sure he doesn’t mean Emily because guys alway love Emily and never her.

Lisa is suspicious of Michael’s advances and declarations of love, even once they’re in his room.  She wonders if it’s a joke because the last guy she dated, eight years earlier, only went after her because he knew she could be caught.  Lisa’s insecurity is heartbreaking, especially once paired with her apparent intelligence and eagerness to experience something that she has come to think she might never have.  Lisa recounts her day with Emily in vivid, ordinary detail, and her voice is so refreshing to hear, both for the audience and in particular Michael.  He really could listen to Lisa read from a menu all day.

Around the midpoint of the film, Michael jokes with Lisa when she brings up something relating to an anomaly, and Michael calls Lisa ‘Anomalisa,’ which she absolutely adores.  She can’t recognize why she’s special, but Michael can.

That night they make love, and Michael, once asleep, has a nightmare that the world (in their shared, monotonous voice) has conspired to keep him and Lisa apart.  When he wakes, she is still there, and he tells her he wants to run away with her.  In that same scene, however, Lisa’s voice, probably inevitably, fades into that of Tom Noonan’s, just like everyone else.

Michael gives his speech about customer service, but the topic bores him, and he has more to worry about and more to mourn.  He has already sensed that Lisa is lost to him, and we get the idea that Michael’s ex-girlfriend probably lost her voice in much the same way Lisa has.  Michael, on stage and in front of the microphone, describes how he loses everyone, and he experiences what might be considered a small mental breakdown.

Michael returns home to wife and and son where they have thrown him a surprise party, but it means nothing to him as it’s just more people with the same voice to bother him.  In one of the funniest moments of the film, however, Michael is revealed to have brought his son an antique Japanese sex toy which he came across earlier in the film.

The story then ends with Lisa writing Michael a letter while she rides down the highway next to Emily in the driver’s seat.  Her voice narrates the letter, sounding like everyone else, but then it fades back into her own voice as she thanks Michael for their time together even though part of her always knew it wouldn’t last.

Richard Linklater’s Before series (Before SunriseBefore Sunset and Before Midnight) are all about two people falling in love (on some level), learning about each other and discussing life.  It’s remarkably engaging considering it’s just a conversation between two people, and Anomalisa shares a lot of the same strengths as those movies.

I was surprised how much I leaned forward in anticipation of what would be discussed next between Michael and Lisa.  The film does a remarkable job of putting us in Michael’s world so that we strongly empathize with him and really hope this woman is as special as she seems.  It felt inevitable that Lisa’s voice would disappear and become like that of everyone else’s, but it was incredibly sorrowful regardless.

Kauffman, the writer who first wrote this story as a play, does an incredible job painting a portrait of loneliness, desire and even the desensitization of aspects of modern life (including anhedonia).  He does this not through despair, but through large amounts of quiet humor, like the strained conversations between Michael and the cab driver or Michael and the bell boy at the hotel.  These small interactions make us laugh, but they also show how Michael can’t communicate with people around him.  They nameless characters are made to seem funny and ‘less than’ Michael, but that’s only because Michael is our protagonist and we are very much seeing the world through his eyes.

Other characters feel more dim witted or delusional.  Only Michael sees the world for what it really is, but perhaps he is the one who is wrong, and he probably is.  Michael drinks and smokes a little too much and spends most of his time alone.  We understand why, of course, because we want to get away from these voices as much as he does, but to the world around him, Michael is the one who can’t see the world for what it really is.

And in that one night, once he meets Lisa, Michael is given a brief opportunity to see what’s so special about so much of life.  Because Lisa’s voice is so joyously different, Michael takes so much pleasure in even the most boring of her stories.  It’s the exact opposite of the way his life has felt for god knows how long.

So yeah, this film is a bit tragic, funny, heartwarming and heartbreaking.  What felt most striking, by the end of the film, was the unspoken aspects of Michael’s relationship with his wife and son.  We’re shown how tortured Michael is by a relationship that ended a decade ago because, presumably, her voice faded away like Lisa’s did.  Because of how painful it is to watch Michael observe the loss of Lisa’s uniqueness, we understand more the pain he felt of losing his previous girlfriend.  He even has the added guilt of having been the one who let her go, unable to tell her why he left.

But what about the wife?  He didn’t leave here, but we don’t know why.  Maybe her voice was always as bland as everyone else’s, and maybe Michael really did settle for her, believing himself unable to find someone special ever again.  Or maybe her voice was unique but then it faded away like the rest, only he didn’t leave her.  Or maybe she lost her voice sometime after getting pregnant with their son, and he simply didn’t think he could leave.

I don’t know, but I have questions, and the whole thing feels incredibly sad.  At the same time, while I understand Michael’s aversion to that damn voice he always hears, maybe it’s a little shortsighted for him to leave someone like Lisa just because her voice disappears.  You could argue that there is some kind of cosmic force that orchestrates their meeting with the intention of changing her voice back to everyone else’s no matter what happens.  The point is that this moment gives Michael a reason to want to get to know her, and ideally he might still love her for her clear intellect, humor and beauty even once her voice goes away.

There are a lot of images and manifestations of love in this film.  We’re always meant to understand why a movie character falls in love with another, but it’s not always easy.  In many movies there is the classic slow motion shot as the protagonist is mesmerized by another person.  I don’t know if these moments really work in making us feel what the character feels.  Instead we just understand what he or she feels.

But Anomalisa really makes us feel what Michael feels.  We love Lisa the same way he does.  It feels urgent and dire, that Michael find and hold onto this woman.  The way he loses her feels similarly familiar, but the film doesn’t give us a concrete answer as to why she loses her voice.  I don’t think it matters why or how Lisa’s voice fades from Jennifer Jason Leigh to Tom Noonan.  All that matters is our recognition of how things change.  You meet someone you hardly know and fall in love with something about them, but then, for know identifiable reason, that magic is lost.  That may be the next day or the next week or months or even years, who knows.  I suppose that’s the point at which things stop being easy and then require you to put in the work because anything worth having requires some effort.

But Michael isn’t willing to put in the work.  He leaves Lisa because he assumes she’s lost forever, but is she?  When Michael returns to his wife (and we meet her for the first time), it doesn’t feel like this is a marriage that has thrived off of mutual effort.  He hasn’t even given the effort in the one thing he really has committed to.

Lisa is a joy, though.  She is able to recognize her time with Michael for what it is, a moment.  She never really had the expectation of anything permanent while Michael did.  Michael wanted it because he thought he could have it and hold onto it forever, kind of like the man Lisa described that she once dated 8 years ago.  Michael isn’t all that different from that man, but at least his time with Lisa was a gift to both of them.  The only difference is that Lisa recognizes this, but Michael doesn’t.  To him, it seems, it didn’t matter because it didn’t last, but for Lisa it’s not always about where you end up as much as it is about where you’ve been.


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