Anomalisa is a quirky little movie by Charlie Kaufman that many will feel borderline disturbed by and find easy to dismiss. The movie, entirely animated and at times to chilling effect, begins with a single voice speaking while the audience stares at a black screen. Immediately other voices join in to create a cacophony representing the internal world of Michael Stone, a writer flying to Cincinnati to give a keynote talk for a convention of telephone marketers.
With the basic plot now accounted for, the remaining action centers on following Michael’s urge to find emotional connection with women he seeks out including a former lover and two women attending his talk who have groupie-like feelings for him. Existing as a counter point to his experiences with these three woman are his wife and son who seem to annoy him at times for unexplained reasons.
The action, such as occurs, is frequently plodding. Sometimes it borders on excruciating. There is a reason over a minute of credits is taken up with the names of Kickstarter funders. Michael presents as dull as his resume. But the more we learn about what motivates him the quicker ennui turns into something resembling disgust.
We see a man who, while clearly lost if not disintegrating, seeks out women to supply him with feelings he cannot generate within himself. Rather than tending toward depression which would make sense, we observe Michael as more deeply disturbed. As a therapist I see someone who has an active need to connect but not the wherewithal to remember why he wants to.
Michael discovers 2 women attending his talk who are staying at the convention hotel. While both appear flirtatious, he makes Lisa the object of his affections. Her hotel roommate is more assured personally and sexually, but Michael is drawn to the shy, sacrificed, and awkward Lisa. We sense that he identifies with her insecurities as we witness him prey upon her vulnerabilities . The movie’s most tender scenes involve his seducing her. Here Michael reveals the most endearing aspects he possesses, even if he is cheating on his wife.
There is a problem with having an unsympathetic protagonist for any filmmaker. It takes a special person to invest their hard earned entertainment dollar trying to care about someone so fragmented that to be around him for more than minute takes fortitude. However I was captivated.
Charlie Kaufman, Anomalisa”s writer director, has left me speechless with his creativity in writing such movies as Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Clearly the diffusion of identity and personality hold some special fascination for him.
The delemma for CK is creating enough buy in for the audience to ignore the urge to bolt because the lead character very struggle may cause us not care for his plight.
I had a similar tussle in what I consider the worst Coen Brother’s movie ever, Inside Llewyn Davis. Here is my review: http://psychologyofeverything.com/2014/01/i-dont-give-a-hootenanny-about-inside-llewyen-davis-the-coen-brothers-flawed-treatment-of-a-minor-story/
Any film maker willing to take the risk of not creating happy endings, has to be acknowledged for guts given the potential for the career ending impact of poor box office.
There is much creativity on display with the Kaufman’s psychological portrait. For example that Michael could buy his young son, who craves a gift from his father’s trip, an antique sex toy without there being overt malice or even a reason to call CPS demonstrates the almost psychotic range of his functioning. You have to trust me on this, but Michael is so out of it that there is a sweet innocence to this bizarre gift.
The creativity of the animation is ever-present. I noticed the sliver of reflection off of TV glass that was set near perpendicular relative to the audience. On a psychological level Michael exists in a particular kind of hell of not being able to sustain a coherent memory linked to the scraps of motivation that he does retain.
When Michael is finally able to pursuade Lisa into agreeing to runoff with him, he immediately undoes his success by being critical toward her.
And as someone who recognizes that the past, especial past traumas, has tremendous power to shape human behaviour and experience, Kaufman leaves no clues to base any theory of why Michael acts like he does.
In this way the audience can only be in the present with Michael without the advantage of being the omniscient observer, a common story telling device. Just as Michael cannot make sense of his predicament, so the audience likewise struggles. Ultimately Kaufman alludes to the existential, philosophical, and spiritual questions of human existence. Who are we if we are not our personality? What is one to do if has no explanation or narrative of who one is or what one is?
The least interesting parts of Michael’s character are the ones most recognized and prized by society. That is of being an influential writer and conference presenter.
Just as there are no easy clues for speculation the psychological origins of Michael’s problems with emotional connection, making the case for his plight being a spiritual emergence is equally difficult. Ahh existence.
When I left Anomalisa I had a very interesting hour long talk with a therapist friend. A talk in many ways more interesting than the movie itself. For that I will give Charlie Kaufman some credit. If an artist’s job is to make it their duty sometimes take the audience out of its comfort zone, Kaufman has succeeded.
My last observation is to say I would pay big money to be a fly on the wall of any therapy session Charlie Kaufman has with his therapist. What if Charlie Kaufman’s therapist was a giant fly a la Kafka? And then Charlie Kaufman made a movie about it? But don’t get me going, I think I’ll quit while I am ahead.
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