Warning: Contains Spoilers
Anomalisa, a stop-motion film from the mind of Charlie Kaufman, is almost unsettling in its piercing observations of the human condition. It’s one of those rare works that disassembles what it means to be human in our increasingly automated world.
The film follows a day in the life of Michael Stone. If a pebble can be said to contain the blueprint of a mountain, then this single day is the definition of Stone’s entire existence. He is the kind of character who often populates modern dramas, a charming-but-aging white man trapped in the scrapyard of his life. A familiar trope to be sure though an important one nonetheless.
While I’m an advocate for more diversity in films, we cannot dismiss the relevance of this kind of character or the experience he represents. There are stories that are best told from a certain perspective. Dramas like Birdman and The Wrestler explore such characters’ disappointments with their life choices and the consequences of these choices. Both stories probe what it means to be a man and father in a world that continues to redefine masculinity.
Older comedies such as Jerry Maguire, A Good Year, and As Good As It Gets tackle these issues from a different perspective. Their protagonists are forced to develop emotionally to become worthy of love. It’s interesting to note that in this type of film, the love interest is often younger and less financially successful than the male protagonist.
At first, Anomalisa seems to be fit into the second category. David Thewlis, as the voice of Michael, is all world-weary, British charm. Early on, we realize that something is wrong with Michael’s perception of the world around him. Like Melvin from As Good As It Gets, he appears to suffer from psychological issues.
In Michael’s case, he perceives those around him as an endless army of interchangeable beings with identical faces and voices. It’s left open-ended whether this is a result of a genuine mental illness or simply a metaphor for his mindset.
“I think I might have psychological problems,” he tells his ex-lover, Bella.
“Oh, good. That clears things up. Thanks,” her blistering response.
While his perception might be skewed, he is still in control of his actions and therefore responsible for them.
Anomalisa opens with Michael arriving in Cincinnati to attend a convention and promote his latest book on customer service. He’s a walking oxymoron — a man who longs to connect with other people but is exasperated by their attempts to communicate with him. His early interactions with a fellow airplane passenger and a taxi driver reveal how tedious he finds such interactions. When he walks through the bustle of the airport, he blocks out the people around him with the aid of earphones and opera.
Despite this, he comes across a deeply lonely man. So lonely that he attempts to reach out to an ex-girlfriend, Bella. She is a victim of his emotional coldness – he simply left her one day without so much as an explanation. When he desperately tries to reconnect with her over drinks, he comes across as both predatory and achingly human.
A brief respite from loneliness comes in the form of Lisa, the only other person in the film with a distinctive voice and face. Michael’s interaction with her contains a strange mixture of tenderness and paternalism. While he’s fascinated with her, he doesn’t seem to view her as an equal.
Their sex scene is one of the most authentic I’ve seen. The focus is less on sex than basic human connection. This makes Michael’s nightmare afterwards all the more jarring. It reveals the heart of his anxiety and self-obsession. In it, humanity is a single hive mind in love with him. Lisa is the one exception to this.
Prompted by his dream, he plans to abandon his wife and child to start a new life with Lisa. There’s a meticulously shot scene in which his plans unravel when she reveals herself to be human rather than his ideal. Annoyed by something as trivial as her eating habits, he sees her slowly transform into one of the automatons.
This is the point where our sympathies shift from Michael to Lisa. It’s painful to watch her puzzled hurt at his irritation. She has no idea what she’s done. Michael is shown as incapable of growth because he lacks sufficient introspection. The problem lies not with Lisa or the world but with his perception of it. Until he addresses that, he’s doomed to remain trapped in isolation.
Luckily Lisa isn’t scarred by Michael’s defection. She sees it as part of the spectrum of human experience. She’s enriched by it. Unlike Michael, she doesn’t feel as if the world owes her anything. This might be why she’s the one who gets the happy ending.