Even when Hollywood tries to make a biting drama, there are always unconvincing elements that desperately attempt to add light to the dolefulness. Whilst Anomalisa is not a depressing, dark drama, it is one of the most honest and therefore damning presentation of human errs. We follow Michael Stone, a customer service specialist who is attending a conference away from home. Michael is a bored, socially inept individual who, by the end, is someone we can both dislike and empathise with. His character’s complexity is nothing revolutionary for film, but it is a man akin to Llewyn Davis – someone rarely seen in cinema – who is distrustful yet reasonable. His short quest to find excitement and fulfilment over the film’s run-time, is a relatable one; like most of Kaufman’s work, there is always something accessible.
Adapted from a stage play, Anomalisa has a very distinctive look and direction. For one, it is entirely played out by puppets. Secondly, it includes just three (voice) actors, two playing the co-leads, and the other playing everyone else. It reflects the artificiality of life Kaufman wants to explore, and comically highlights the universal personalities that peer pressure and social media has created. Stone – and later, Lisa – is a notable exception in the monosyllabic world, one which he is unaware of. Planting a very ordinary man in an even more uniform world is engaging thanks to its identifiable portrait. Stone has many of the same insecurities and bad habits that we all develop over life – wondering how he may overcome them, or to see how they are adding to his ennui, is the narrative’s drive. Whether he succeeds or not is a desire that grows and diminishes as Michael alters his behaviour and, sometimes, decency.
The second pivotal plot point is the titular Lisa (nicknamed Anomalisa by Michael). Once this self-effacing person comes into it, the presentation of humanity comes full frame. The only other person that looks and sounds different, with an air of grace about her, Lisa is a beautiful creature, unknowingly swimming against the tide – like Michael – and more or less happy. Once Michael meets and begins interacting with Lisa, this is also where the meticulous movement of the puppetry gets its spotlight, too. That spark of life Stone sees in Lisa not only lifts the mood, it lifts the strings of the puppets (figuratively speaking, as this is a stop-motion animation). You soon forget you are watching an animation, and get drawn into a very human drama. The romance that blossoms is quick, yet the motions are smooth – it’s a wondrous spectacle to see the otherwise clunky look transition into seamlessness.
As with other Kaufman efforts, the careful construction is maybe felt more so after watching, upon analysis. You are certainly engrossed as everything happens, although to pontificate on its meaning arguably comes later. For many, this will be a draw-back, as it continues with Kaufman’s unconventional methods. It is meant to be alienating in essence, as the faces and voices largely melt into one, and dream sequences and hallucinatory moments jerk you out of the monotony it strives to show. The subliminal qualities are what make Kaufman such a great writer and director – take the movement point, for example, and is something you only notice post-screening, or gradually through thought.
Comedy may not be as palpable as in Being John Malkovich or Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, but you will laugh heartily at many sequences. Laughing in the face of misery is often the best defence mechanism, and Kaufman certainly advocates that notion. The nervousness of our main characters is something to chuckle at occasionally, making sure you are not too depressed about the neuroses that plague many of us. It is, at its core, a love story – that always comes with ebullience as well as sadness. To walk away from the film feeling cold shouldn’t happen – what the complications and comedy aim to provide is a warmness that can only be felt by those that understand the multifaceted layers of life. Kaufman certainly understands, and his animated characters, somehow, reflect this better than most real-life actors.