One supposes the ideal setting for any personal hell of loneliness and alienation couldn’t possibly be anywhere else other than a hotel in Cincinnati. Thus, it’s only natural that Charlie Kaufman would choose this milieu as the backdrop for his incredibly detailed and wonderfully disorienting animated film, Anomalisa.
Based on a play Kaufman wrote back in 2005, the writer-director recreates the story of Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a motivational speaker/author specializing in customer service who flies into Cincinnati for one day to give a talk on his latest book. The seeming glasses each character that populates his world is wearing are actually just a line across their eyes that makes it look as though their face could be ripped off with ease. They are puppets, a none too subtle metaphor on Kaufman’s part, but highly effective for the purposes of this film. It is very much one of Kaufman’s modi operandi to make the universe of his screenplays controlled by some incarnation of a master puppeteer. In Being John Malkovich, it is actual puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) trying to call the shots in John Malkovich’s mind, in Adaptation it is the hallucinatory nature of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman himself (or at least a version of him in the form of Nicolas Cage) who creates an entire alternate reality and in Synecdoche, New York, it is Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) pulling the strings of his actors as he tries to direct a play committed to utter realism. And so, as Kaufman continues to establish one of his most beloved postulations–none of us controls our own destiny–it’s easy to understand why Anomalisa is his most no holds barred. Co-directed with animator Duke Johnson, the painstaking process behind making this small world took over two years, often with no more than fractions of seconds of footage per day being “generated.” Consequently, it’s only natural that Kaufman would want to make as big a statement as possible with the meticulous attention to detail required to birth the final product.
Starting with Michael’s descent into Cincinnati, during which the pilot establishes the monotone voice that Michael hears everyone speak in (voiced by Tom Noonan), it’s clear that something more than just mere ennui is afflicting him. The ironies of Michael’s life abound, from the fact that he tells people to “Look at what is special about each individual. Focus on that,” when, to his dismay, everyone sounds and looks the same to him. Whether or not this is purely because he suffers from Fregoli delusion, a psychological disorder that leads one to believe different people are the same people, often in disguise, depends on how much you believe in metaphor. In Michael’s case, everyone bears the same man’s face and voice, leading him to feel as though he’s trapped in the most suffocating of all prisons: the kind where you feel alone and anomalous among your so-called own kind.
To intensify matters, being in Cincinnati reminds him of an ex-girlfriend he left abruptly just over ten years ago in this very city, back in 1995 (it being 2005 in the film is somewhat integral to a political rant he later goes on while giving his speech). Her name is Bella, and he still can’t quite explain to himself why he left her in spite of being so in love for a time. The logical reason, of course, is that she transformed, in his mind, into the same person with the same voice that he constantly sees and hears. Wanting to unfurl the mystery of his abandonment, he calls her up and invites for a drink at his hotel. Reluctant, Bella agrees, perplexed by his line of questioning, which includes, “Did you notice yourself…change when we were together?” Enraged by his seeming callousness, Bella storms out, leaving Michael, once again, on his own to wrestle with the disturbance of being amid nothing but carbon copies.
Just when he’s resigned himself to another night of misery, he overhears the voice of a woman–one whose vocal intonations are actually feminine. Frantic to find her, he knocks on multiple doors on his floor to unearth her: Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a dowdy woman who is staying in a room with her friend, Emily, to see him speak the next day. Entranced by Lisa’s voice and alleged aura, Michael asks her back to his room–much to both her and Emily’s surprise.
As Michael engages her in conversation, he learns that she loves Cyndi Lauper and asks her to sing something by her. Mildly skeptical of how interested he is in her at first, Lisa relents, diving into an a capella version of “Girls Just Want To Have Fun.” This move proves the ultimate in seduction as Michael engages her in one of the most authentic, yet bizarre onscreen sex scenes (they’re puppets after all) of all time. When it’s over, Michael falls into a deep sleep, eventually having a nightmare about the general manager of the hotel and all of his customer service minions telling him he can’t be with Lisa. He awakes in a panic, but calms down when he asks Lisa to be with him over breakfast, informing her that he wants to leave his wife and child. Briefly relieved that he’s finally found someone different, his anomaly in Anomalisa, he’s horrified to notice that her habits at the table are repulsive to him, like the way she lets the fork clink against her teeth. It is during these moments that her voice becomes like all the rest. She has lost her specialness for him. Clearly, this speaks to the problem of everybody after they have sex with someone (even those without Fregoli delusion): once you’ve gotten to know someone in that ephemerally confidendtial way, they automatically lose his or her luster. It’s the curse of intimacy.
Beyond the layers of Kaufman’s statement on how humans are largely homogenous, there is also the more literal illumination of the customer service industry and the forcedness and falsity behind it. In essence, we must pay people to be nice to us with grudging smiles. Is that why they all look and sound the same to us? Probably. But in Michael’s case, we’ll never really know the extent of his delusion being a psychosomatic response to societal uniformity or a genuine inability to find anyone he can connect with.