Anomalisa is a Charlie Kaufman film, so it will potentially disturb you, confuse you, and make you question everything you know. It might also make you laugh, and charm you, all at the same time. The effortlessly tight storytelling belies the ridiculous amount of work that went into making Anomalisa (it’s stop-motion, after all), and the banality that the film explores so deeply somehow never bores, and not just because of the puppets.
The world Kaufman and Duke Johnson, his co-director, create here is, as usual for Kaufman, creepy but troublingly familiar. Though he is a stop-motion puppet surrounded by people who all share the same face and voice, Michael (David Thewlis) feels all too real, as do the mundane conversations he has with cab drivers and hotel employees on his business trip. Kaufman is an impeccable writer of everyday dialogue. Most of the conversations in the film are highly usual, even Michael’s very tense reunion with his ex, and this in a way makes them feel special. We don’t feel depressed; we feel the laughing relief that comes from art that reminds us of ourselves.
This sensation is particularly felt when Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) is introduced. She’s the only character aside from Michael who has her own unique face and voice, and her general insecurity keeps her oscillating between fascination and mortification as Michael discovers and becomes obsessed with her. To him, she’s instantly the most important person in the world – the only one who’s different, like him. It’s painful to see the shame she inflicts on herself because of a minor disfigurement, and Michael’s determination to convince her she’s perfect and special is creepy but affecting. Lisa gets somewhat comfortable, sings an unexpectedly lovely (and long) rendition of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” and sleeps with Michael. The sex scene is very complete and very real, and it makes you wonder if, somehow, this level of intimacy should only ever be illustrated with puppets.
The familiarity warms us until we learn that Michael isn’t just your average lonely protagonist in a world full of duds. There are warning signs of course: besides his nightmare in which everyone is in love with him, Michael’s general behavior is erratic and strange. Why call his ex, who he’s clearly hurt so badly, out of the blue? Why buy an antique sex doll for his son because he can’t find any real toys? But we feel for Michael because he’s all alone in a cold, uniform world. In the end, it turns out that he’s created this world for himself.
When Michael returns home (after a spectacularly jarring performance at his speaking engagement that points to real mental health issues), you may find yourself feeling cheated. This is the big payoff? He’s still a narcissistic jerk and always will be? But then we shift. Remember the title? We were never supposed to get our emotional payoff from Michael. Lisa’s perspective is the one we end up with, and she’s the character who develops and changes in the end. She’s gotten an intense dose of adoration from Michael, and while he’s incapable of learning from her, Lisa can absorb what others give her, and she gains confidence, rather than resentment, from the brief, doomed affair.
You might be thinking, great, but isn’t this still just another story about a white guy? And yes, it is strange that filmmakers keep insisting on telling marginalized people’s stories in this roundabout way. In this case, we’re supposed to sympathize with a socially awkward woman who is not conventionally pretty but still focus on a white male protagonist. However, the environment Michael builds in his own head is essentially the premise, so if we followed Lisa the whole time instead, it would be an entirely different film. Sequel?