Dear Little Girls,
I’m going to guess that you’re sisters, around six and eight. The woman you walked in with was most likely your mother, and the three of you arrived just as the film was about to start. You sat beside a man who was most likely your father.
I’ve seen this kind of thing before at free screenings. A movie with puppets, or teddy bears, or animation seems like a fun mid-week treat. A cheap night out for the family. Until the bear starts smoking weed and swearing, or the puppets start touching each other in their bathing suit areas and the next thing you know, the kids are being dragged out of the theatre, a trail of popcorn behind them.
But you stayed. And saw things and heard things that you likely hadn’t seen or heard before. I know I did. I went in expecting Anomalisa, a stop-motion animated film by Charlie Kaufman, to be dark and bizarre and a little sardonic. I’m not sure what you expected, but by the end of the film you probably had more questions than answers. I spent several hours afterwards trying to dissect what I’d just seen. And I’m a grown-up.
In most kid’s movies, the protagonist is the hero of the story, someone to look up to, someone to root for. Not so here. Michael Stone, the semi-famous customer service guru who has arrived Cincinnati for a seminar, is kind of an asshole (I don’t feel bad swearing in front of you; not after what we’ve been through). The first lines of dialogue in the film use the f-word liberally as Michael reads a letter from a jilted lover. Soon after that, Michael urinates in his hotel bathroom, takes a shower, and visits a sex shop. Probably not the type of stuff you’re used to seeing on Sesame Street or Treehouse. But hey, now you know that the thing you found in Mummy’s bedside table isn’t a flashlight like she told you.
I don’t have kids myself, but I remember being pretty perceptive when I was your age. Did you also notice that Michael constantly misses opportunities to make genuine, human connections with the people around him? Or that everyone he interacts with looks and sounds the same? The figures used in the film have faces that are attached like masks, and with the exception of David Thewlis, who voices Michael, and Jennifer Jason-Leigh, who voices Lisa, the only other actor in the film is Tom Noonan, who voices everyone else. Even you guys probably picked up on the fact that this is meant to reflect Michael’s view of the world as mundane, lacking variety and joy. Everyone around him moves through their lives like mindless automatons. And although he has a wife and son at home, and a successful career, he mopes about like a put-upon, spoiled, petulant child.
When Michael finally cajoles his ex-lover to visit him in the hotel bar, we see just how selfish and narcissistic he is. His attempts to force intimacy result in his eventual meeting with Lisa, who he is attracted to because she doesn’t look or sound like anyone else. She’s an anomaly. Get it? Lisa is sweet, and self-deprecating, and though she is scarred both physically and emotionally, she is real. It’s this realness that mesmerizes Michael. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s portrayal of Lisa is the bright spot in this dull world. She sings Cyndi Lauper, reveals her joys and fears, and allows Lisa some bravery in her vulnerability.
Little girls often make their dolls do inappropriate things. But I’m fairly certain you’ve never done to your dolls what Michael does to Lisa. Instead of playing the sex scenes for laughs like Team America: World Police, Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson take care to present the (anatomically correct) sex between Michael and Lisa as honestly and lovingly as possible. Just remember kids, oral sex is only for puppets who think they love each other very, very much. But because this is a Kaufman movie, I knew better than to expect a happily ever after ending. Even a child could see that Lisa, in all her Middle-American ordinariness, is too good for Michael.
For all its naturalism and attention to detail, the conceit of Anomalisa, though beautifully executed, smacks of gimmickry. In the end, we’re left with a mediocre Charlie Kaufman oddity that feels like more like an extended therapy session than a story. The themes of isolation and mid-life identity crisis are a little on the nose, especially when Michael’s customer service advice (“Look for what is special about each individual, focus on that”) is juxtaposed against his inability to view people as different. See kids? That’s called irony! Then there were some headscratchers like a dream sequence that brought the pace of the story to a dead halt, and the fact that for some reason the film takes place in 2006, perhaps so Michael can go off on a George Bush rant in the middle of his conference speech. Kids, George Bush was the president before Obama, and he…oh, never mind.
But I must commend you for sticking it out. Many, many adults walked out of the screening—more than I’ve ever seen leave a film before. Maybe they were expecting the strange wit of Being John Malkovich, or the bubble-gum visuals of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or maybe they were expecting Wallace & Gromit. Who knows. I was hoping for Kaufman’s trademark whimsical melancholy, that rare gift that allows him to consistently deliver movies that manage that balance between art and mainstream. Anomalisa almost gets the balance right, but like most kid’s puppet shows, between the kissing scenes and the fighting scenes, the story just isn’t all that interesting.
As I watched you walk down the aisle after the screening, one of you had obviously been crying. The other was staring straight ahead, clutching a box of Poptopia for dear life. I will remember Anomalisa as the only Charlie Kaufman movie that made me check my watch. I’m sure it will be memorable for you too, but for very different reasons.
Good luck in therapy,