Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), an author and motivational speaker specializing in the subject of retail customer service, finds himself on another depressing book tour. It’s 2005 and he finds himself in Cincinnati, Ohio, a city where he has unresolved feelings about a one-night stand that he hopes to rekindle—despite being married with a kid back home. The planned meeting with his former lover goes horribly down the tubes, and in the midst of an anxiety attack, he happens to meet another woman who captures his heart and mind almost immediately. Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) looks up to Michael and his work; her flattery and attention sparks an immediate connection between the two. But is that connection enough to create something meaningful? Is it enough to break the repetitive, monotonous cycle Michael’s life has become?
Utilizing stop-motion animation and only a three-person voice cast, Anomalisa attempts to strip down a fragile male ego, but instead of creating something moving, filmmakers Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson have created something that’s as coldly clinical and condescending as it is visually intuitive. I’ve watched the film three times now and my opinion of it degrades with each consecutive watch. It’s a film—like many Kaufman efforts—that aspires to bracing emotional depths by way of existentialism and forward thinking. Only this time, the results are far more distressingly sexist, not particularly interesting and nowhere near as deep as Kaufman seems to think they are.
Things start off quite brilliantly, which makes the film’s eventual collapse all the more tragic. Michael never gets portrayed as someone all that worthy of sympathy. He’s manipulative and boorish towards those he feels are beneath him. There’s something primal about his approach to life. Even in the animation, the character feels purposefully overblown: a bundle of swagger and tics in search of a greater purpose in life. Outside of Lisa, every voice he hears (including those in his dreams) sounds the same (and all are provided by Tom Noonan). It’s clear early on that Michael has created his own special kind of hell. He’s an absentee husband and father who has resigned himself to only fleeting moments of happiness. He’s almost too cynical of a person to function in normal society.
For Kaufman, such material can be delivered in the noted screenwriter’s sleep. It’s not terribly far removed from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Synecdoche, New York and the themes explored in those films. They’re also about somewhat unlikable guys forced into re-evaluating their life choices, and it’s a shame that Anomalisa becomes a film about a man whose life constantly repeats itself because it becomes autobiographical in all the wrong ways. The only differences between Anomalisa and a different Charlie Kaufman script are that this one happens to be animated and the plot structure is more rigidly adherent to a three act play-by-play.
For a writer who once famously claimed in an interview to have no idea what a third act is, that structuring proves to be the film’s ultimate undoing. Following an admittedly ambitious dream sequence and an ill-fated breakfast the morning after Michael and Lisa sleep together, Kaufman gives into his own worst instincts and seems to be racing to wrap things up. It goes off the rails, and not in any sort of creative or interesting way. Michael turns out to be the jerk the viewer always knew him to be, but Kaufman tries desperately to make this man somehow relatable and sympathetic. It’s far too little that’s being done, and the film comes across as a half-hearted apology to every woman duped into having a one night stand with an egomaniac.
The final third of the film amounts to Kaufman saying that successful dudes are sometimes bad people because they’re very lonely. But it’s hard to feel bad for Michael when all of his choices are self-inflicted. What should be a film about a man trying to break self-destructive patterns—the film that Kaufman and Johnson set up at the outset—becomes a shrug of a notion that life will never get better for any of us. It’s not that the sentiment is too depressing, but that’s it’s approached from a direction that never feels earned.
Anomalisa gets by mostly on the strength of the craft that went into making it. It doesn’t have to be animated, but the stylistic choices being deployed by Johnson (perhaps best known for the stop-motion Christmas episode of “Community”) and Kaufman are original enough to disguise the lacklustre script with some intriguing ideas about identity and personal interaction. There are memorable moments throughout (Michael dealing with a chatty cabbie, Lisa singing “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” in two different languages), and for a while it seems like enough to distract from watching a writer doing material he has done better before.
Anomalisa is akin to watching a stand-up comic remount old material with just a few words changed and compressed to run over a shorter period of time. It’s not that Kaufman isn’t talented, it’s that the audience should know that he’s capable of much better. It’s a bit of a greatest hits album filled with a few new tracks of filler on the tail that aren’t very good. It’s hard to explain without openly spoiling it, but the longer Anomalisa sits in my mind, the worse of a feeling it leaves behind. That might be part of the point, but asking the audience to feel bad for the characters involved is a bit much. It’s a film without a shred of empathy, so asking for sympathy in return feels like a cheat.