Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has a penchant for producing bizarre, thought provoking films. He is an anomaly. Usually films are known by their starring actor or the auteur, the seminal director. We rush to see the next Tom Cruise or Steven Spielberg movie. How many of us even know who the screenwriters of these films even are? But Charlie Kaufman-penned screenplays are widely known as Charlie Kaufman films. From the aptly named Being John Malkovich to his latest effort, Anomolisa — which, it was just announced this morning, is an Oscar nominee for Best Animated Feature Film.
Kaufman seems to have an obsession with puppetry. Being John Malkovich centered around a neurotic puppeteer played by John Cusack. Cusack’s character ultimately inhabits and takes over the mind of John Malkovich, who subsequently quits acting and becomes a celebrated puppeteer. In Anomalisa, the characters are all puppets, fraught with human frailties and yearnings, but who exactly is controlling the strings? The 3D printed puppets aren’t in fact controlled with physical strings, but may be at the mercy of outside forces and to paraphrase Thoreau, they are doomed to lead lives of quiet desperation.
As previously reported, Anomolisa was co-directed by Kaufman and Duke Johnson and was funded in part with a Kickstarter campaign. I saw Anomalisa with my brother and sister-in-law, both avowed Charlie Kaufman fans, not knowing quite what to expect. Coming out of the theater I think the general consensus was that it was a bit boring at times, uncomfortable, but definitely a technological achievement. The puppets seemed very human, too human perhaps.
At first everyone appears to be bespectacled, due to the seams in their faces. Their faces are divided at the bridge of the nose and are divided from the back of the head. I started wondering what was under the mask, so to speak, and apparently this is something the filmmakers counted on and toyed with audience’s expectation that the faces might indeed come off.
Spoiler Alert: Don’t read any further if you plan on seeing the film and don’t want to know particulars.
The film opens with Michael, the film’s protagonist, onboard a plane bound to Cincinnati. We see another airplane out the window that seems perilously close. It disappears behind a cloud and never reemerges. The audience at this point is prepared for a disastrous impact that never comes and the plane lands safely. This is one of many red herrings laced throughout the film. The film is a period piece, taking place in 2005, as evidenced by Michael’s 3D printed iPod classic.
Michael, a British ex-pat (voiced by David Thewlis) is a celebrated motivational speaker who is quite possibly suffering from a mental condition. Everyone around him is stupid and banal, and they speak in exactly the same monotone voice (Tom Noonan) whether male or female, young or old. The film revolves around this peculiarity, that everyone sounds and looks the same, except for Michael who is far more expressive and has a singular voice. At times the people around him are almost reverent, and gush about how his book has helped increase workplace productivity by 90%.
It’s a slice of life and it’s not a very interesting or exciting life. There are however some genuinely funny moments, like when Michael’s cab driver explains that the Cincinnati Zoo isn’t too big or small, “it’s zoo-sized,” and it is repeated on a billboard outside Michael’s hotel window. Michael later meets the hotel manager in his cavernous office with sunken meeting area. The hotel manager apologizes that the office is so huge; he was offered a 300 sq. ft. office, but how could he resist this much bigger space? Michael has to drive a car to reach the manager at the opposite end of the office. The characters are rendered and printed in exacting detail, down to their 3D printed genitalia. I was not expecting to see full frontal puppet nudity or awkward sex scenes. Anomalisa has both.
Michael’s trip is made brighter when he encounters Lisa, whom he affectionately calls Anomalisa, because she has a voice all her own (Jennifer Jason Leigh). They have some genuinely tender moments and a very brief love affair. Michael professes his undying love to Lisa and then instantly regrets it when her voice starts sounding like the same monotone of every other person in Michael’s world. Michael feels even more isolated than before and the uniformity of the other 3D printed characters reinforces this feeling. If anything it is how human the characters seem that is the most disturbing aspect of this film. They are insecure, obtuse, annoying, self-loathing, self-aggrandizing and depressed. Just like real people. Michael feels doomed to live a wretched life in a sea of uniform vacuous people, and it’s especially evident in the finely printed lines of his 3D printed visage.