January 25, 2016

Anomalisa Gets Under Your Skin in Unexpected Ways

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“What is it to be human?” asks the voiceover in the trailer for Anomalisa. “What is it to ache, what is it to be alive? Each person you speak to has had a childhood. Each has a body. Each body has aches. Look for what is special about each individual. Focus on that.” The trailer is wildly misleading. While it suggests a happy, effervescent tone reminiscent of Her, especially when set to the tune “Just Like a Dream” by Lykke Li, the film itself is actually about a man fundamentally and tragically unable to do just that — distinguish between individuals. It is actually a retrogressive, surrealist horror film about the waking nightmare doldrums of our daily lives. I admire this film immensely but I cannot say I was deeply moved or affected by it. Nonetheless, I was very much impressed by its ingenuity, ambition, and structure, which are hallmark characteristics of a Charlie Kaufman film.

Instead of dealing with the questions raised in the trailer, the film asks what happens when one becomes nearly unable to recognize the humanity in others. The answer: hell. A very monotonous, mundane, boring hell. The movie so successfully creates this aura that even at 90 minutes it becomes a slog. Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight feels shorter. This is another obstacle to one’s enjoyment of the film, but if you are able to appreciate why the filmmakers are trying to make you feel deliberately uncomfortable, you will not mind. Kaufman and his co-director, Duke Johnson, are not out to entertain you in this Kickstarter-funded animated film. They are out to make you feel the burden and inertia and malaise that chokes us when we are at our lowest ebb on a daily basis. I was always checking my watch, but still there was brain candy aplenty on screen, and my interest remained intact.

The movie concerns the overnight stay in Cincinnati — though it could be any generic American town — of one Michael Stone, an English hospitality services drone. Voiced beautifully by David Thewlis, the character recalls the actor’s aimless yet deep London drifter from Mike Leigh’s Naked. Michael is to give a lecture at a conference on consumer satisfaction, and tries to engage in a desperate affair with a girl who he dumped many years ago. This is an effort to pump some much-needed excitement into his pulseless life. Something strange you’ll notice shortly into the film: Every single supporting character has the same voice. All are portrayed by Tom Noonan, and represent the identically dull tones which all people sound like to Michael. This is a brilliant conceit which does not make things easier on the audience. In fact it makes it easy for us to regard every character on screen with the same disdain and annoyance Michael does.

Then into Michael’s life tumbles an anomaly: another woman, Lisa, actually no more than a goofy fangirl of his work. She treats him with disproportionate admiration and is so self-deprecating she is easy to manipulate. Voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh, she is yet still a warm and inviting soul and one cannot blame Michael when he falls desperately in love with her. There is a protracted puppet sex scene with a miniature prosthetic penis, in which the film frighteningly uses the Uncanny Valley effect to its advantage. The trouble is, soon Lisa’s little tics, neuroses, and peccadillos get in the way of Michael’s fervent adoration for her and prevent him from enjoying her markedly tactile voice. The honeymoon period is over mighty quick — after only one night — for poor Michael. He cannot seem to make any sort of magic or romanticism last, and soon has to return to his dopey wife and kid in the morning, both of whom he considers nothing more than a nuisance.

Reading up on the almost exclusively glowing reviews of the film, I discovered a clue which helped me unlock the central motif. The name of the hotel where Michael stays is called the Al Fregoli. Kaufman, a screenwriter with the mind of a Freudian psychologist, tends to embed many layers of, well, psychology in his settings and characters, and “Fregoli” refers to a specific delusion. Knowing this is critical to unraveling the movie’s game plan, so take a minute and Wikipedia it.

There are two camps when it comes to film criticism, as far as I am concerned: the intellectual branch and the emotional branch. Some appreciate a film more for its merits: acting, writing, construction, set design, etc., whereas I tend to view the best films as instruments to elicit strong emotional responses. The best films in my mind are the ones that provoke those exhilarating responses and play your heart like a violin — like Her. Anomalisa does not do that, but it does precisely what it means to. It is exceedingly effective at creating a suffocating atmosphere of nothingness, and scares you into putting some goddamn meaning into your ordinary humdrum life. Other movie characters have undergone these trials with more emotionally satisfying results (Lester Burnham in American Beauty), but unfortunately for Michael Stone, he is irredeemable.

Mark DiStefano is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].