With the release of Anomalisa,it’s incontrovertibly, spine-tinglingly, cinephiniacally clear — Charlie Kaufman, the geek hero of movies, is back! Kaufman has not made a movie in seven years since Synecdoche, New York (2008), his writer/directorial debut. Previous to Synecdoche, he had been screenwriter — but not director — for movies such as Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation (2002), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). But his return as writer/director of Anomalisa, co-directed with Duke Johnson,is anything but a disappointment — it is the most compelling animated movie of 2015. Anomalisa is also Kaufman’s first animated movie and the first R-rated movie to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. The stop-motion animation using puppets is the most life-like stop-motion animation yet made for the silver screen.
Although not a feel-good flick, Anomalisa paints an empathetic and endearing portrait of what it’s like to have depression through the psychology of the protagonist, self-help author, Michael Stone (voice-acted by David Thewlis). However, like any narrative, there are multiple layers open for investigation, and seeing Anomalisa as an allegory for depression is but the surface of the 90-minute mind-bender. In turn, Anomalisa is also a love story and a story about what it means to be a human being.
Michael is a married and successful man who lives in a well-furbished home in Los Angeles; he should be happy, but he isn’t. He is originally from England — a stranger to the States (as he calls them) — and also a stranger to his own life; he struggles to connect with everyone he meets, and it is apparent from the beginning, when he swallows an anti-depressant on the airplane to Cincinnati, Ohio to stay in the Fregoli Hotel before one of his self-help talks, that he is experiencing more than a temporary slump. The Fregoli Hotel is named after Fregoli delusion, a rare mental disorder that causes you to think the same person is after you under different disguises. Everyone, in Michael’s mind, speaks with the same voice (voice-acted by Tom Noonan) and even looks less-realistic than him — more like hand-made marionettes signified by the creases at the joints where they were glued together. This style can be a metaphor for the nullifying effect of depression that makes it difficult or impossible to experience the vitality of life again. The movie itself starts with a black screen and a torrent of the same voice talking as different people, like Michael closing his eyes to manage the mental ache of depression with the sky outside the airplane window pink — like brain matter. The city, Cincinnati, he is visiting, too, is representative of Michael’s mental torture of revisiting his own bad memories — specifically, that of the ex-girlfriend he walked out on, Bella.
But Anomalisa is also a love story. Although Michael is already married, and still hung up about his betrayal of Bella, he meets Lisa, whose voice (voice-acted by Jennifer Jason Leigh) is the only other in the movie that sounds different. She, too, looks more human that the other animated puppets, and Michael invites her away from her friend to his room where they become intimate.
Anomalisa is also about what it means to be human. In one scene, after taking a shower, Michael rubs a heart-shaped window in the fogged-up mirror, and he is able to pull back the corner of his cheek — like an existential investigation of what makes human consciousness tick. (Are we mechanical, biochemical puppets (a metaphor for the animation)? Or do we have agency over our actions?) And, in his self-help talk, Michael asks, “What is it to be human? What is it to ache? What is it to be alive?”
Anomalisa is an animated movie unlike any you’ve seen before. You’ll finish not merely entertained, but more pensive, more vulnerable, more human — more alive. And that, I think, is always a good thing.