Film Reviews

Charlie Kaufman's Anomalisa Pulls All Our Strings

Charlie Kaufman is a cartographer of the soul. You can picture him hunched over parchment, accurately inking each dark river and, off to the side, cautioning that there be dragons.

What makes Kaufman cinema’s best psychoanalyst is a contradiction. He sees people for who we are — hurtful, hopeful, lovely, lonely and dull — and yet believes that the self is a delusion. His characters are complex and true, but they’re never in control. They’re costumes (Being John Malkovich), brain-wiped customers (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and actors in someone else’s play (Synecdoche, New York). He sees the world like an anxious party guest watching himself from above and groaning, “Why did I do that?” The shame matters more than any solution.

With each script, Kaufman has exaggerated his characters’ impotence. In his newest, Anomalisa, he goes to the extreme by literally making them puppets. Anomalisa’s stop-motion figurines’ bellies sag and their testicles droop. Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson animate their brows and mouths so that their speech is smooth, not that clap-clap clatter of marionettes. But the faces appear purposefully false. A crack runs across the bridge of the puppets’ noses and circles their features so it looks like a mask. And when our protagonist, a depressive salesman, pulls his skin-plates apart in the mirror, exposing the mechanics he shares with everyone else, he screams.

The plot is small, banal, anonymous. A businessman meets a woman in an Ohio hotel. It could be happening right now. In fact, if you scan the bar of the Hyatt Regency Cincinnati, it probably is. But even in just one night, so ordinary in its small indignities — wonky keycards, awkward bellhops, drawn-out room-service orders, claustrophobia-inducing carpets — Kaufman builds an emotional world that we’re nervous to enter, one we’re already living in.

The man, Michael Stone, is on a lecture tour for his book about customer service. At first, nothing much happens. He endures a skittish airplane seatmate and a chatty cabbie, checks into his hotel and apathetically calls his family. The stop-motion minutiae is exact to the point that it borders on the surreal.

Kaufman, of course, has added a twist. Michael (David Thewlis) speaks with a British growl. But everyone else in his world — his wife, his son, his concierge, his ex-girlfriend — is voiced by the actor Tom Noonan. Noonan adjusts the volume of his speech, but otherwise sounds the same no matter whom he’s playing. This is how Michael, a commonplace narcissist, sees humanity: There’s him, and then there’s the mush of everyone else.

Michael sees mankind as monotonous. We see Michael as sad. But the other people in Anomalisa must hear their own voices differently. They don’t share his ego; they have their own. And when Michael, panicked by his false face, blunders into the hotel room of two saleswomen from Akron, Kaufman flips our perception again. The women gasp in delight: Michael’s best-selling guide raised their profits 90 percent. To us, he’s pathetic, but to them, he’s a hero. Then one of the women, Lisa, speaks, and her unique voice (from Jennifer Jason Leigh) sings through the hum. This rare creature can rescue him. Perhaps he hasn’t given up on being a romantic hero after all.

Kaufman is pulling on a dozen strings, and audiences deserve to discover for themselves how they move Michael and Lisa. Track his ideas to the top, however, and he’s triggering the same questions he asked in Synecdoche: Why do we love some people more than others? Can we truly love anyone if we don’t love ourselves?

Directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson. Written by Charlie Kaufman. Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan and David Thewlis. 

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Amy Nicholson was chief film critic at LA Weekly from 2013 to 2016. Her work also appeared in the other Voice Media Group publications — the Village Voice, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press, Dallas Observer and OC Weekly. Nicholson’s criticism was recognized by the Los Angeles Press Club and the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. Her first book, Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor, was published in 2014 by Cahiers du Cinema.