How much of a person’s loneliness is a product of their personality? If a person is offered affection but doesn’t want it, can they be helped? These seem to be the central question in Charlie Kaufman’s latest film, Anomalisa.
We follow customer service guru, Michael Stone (voiced by David Thelweis), who’s in Cincinnati overnight for a conference where he is giving a talk. His reaction to the whole trip is one of antipathy and ambivalence; the conversations with cab drivers, bell boys, airplane seat mates are all annoyingly superficial. Everyone sounds the same – literally, (all the other characters bar one are voiced by the same actor, Tom Noonan). Michael is a lonely man, struggling to make a connection with anyone.
However, he’s not a victim and is far from sympathetic; he’s self pitying and selfish. In Cincinnati he calls up an ex-girlfriend, Bella, who he walked out on 12 years ago. She agrees to go for a drink for old times sake and, as it later turns out, to – quite reasonably – get an answer for why he left. But Michael’s only objective is to unburden himself on her; I’ve missed you, we had something special he pleads, he gracelessly suggests they go up to his room. He wants a hug and a back rub while he’s told he’s special and what they had was special and they can now pick up where they left off – where he left off – now that he’s feeling lonely and needy.
This encapsulates Michael and his problem; he’s an emotional vampire. He latches onto people for validation and the early buzz of a new relationship, when it’s easier to project your fantasy onto a person who is still largely a mystery and everything feels exciting and fresh. He latches onto people and lives off these feelings until the moment has passed and he feels dried out. He then moves on, with little regard for the other person, seeing himself as the injured party. We see that he did it to Bella in the past, he’s on the verge of discarding his wife and son in the present, and now he needs a new provider for the future.
In a moment of deep existential despair Michael desperately seeks someone to be with, which is when he meets Lisa. She seems sweet, innocent and malleable enough. She’s a fan of his customer service bible and has traveled to see his conference speech, she offers uncomplicated adoration and so a new fantasy begins for him. What we then see is Michael’s modus operandi with people played out in double time, going from total infatuation to total separation.
Michael is similar to the central characters of Kaufman’s other films, especially Nicolas Cage’s Charlie Kaufman (I’m not explaining that, just watch the film) from Adaptation and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Caden Cotard from Synecdoche, New York. He’s an intelligent man who feels apart from the world and is searching for a deeper meaning for his life, while ignoring the beauty that’s all around him. However, Michael is by far the least sympathetic and most pathetic central character Kaufman has written. He’s very hard to empathise with and because of this there’s a coldness to the film, which ultimately makes Kaufman’s question – how much of our own happiness are we responsible for – something you get on a logical level, but miss on an emotional one. Arguably the opposite of his best work.
However, Charlie Kaufman’s subpar work is still superior to a vast majority of other films. The dialogue still sounds effortlessly authentic thanks to its imperfections; characters mishearing words, interrupting each other too soon, going on a bit too long. Y’know, like real conversations.
And while the central character and his relationships might have a coldness to them, it’s hard to deny that it’s a masterful sketch of human interaction. The preamble of Michael and Lisa sleeping together is one of the most awkwardly authentic depictions of that ‘heading for a one night stand’ experience I’ve ever seen.
Which brings me neatly to puppet sex. Anomalisa goes for a very authentic angle with the sex; no flapping curtain in the breeze or cuts to closes-ups of hands grabbing sheets, it’s fully focused on the physicality of two bodies coming together to try and get each other off, and the inherent fumbling and imperfection of it. It’s a reminder of how juvenile Hollywood is when it comes to sex when a scene between two puppets getting it on is one of the most authentic feeling sex scenes you’ll ever see. Or maybe that says more about me? Uhh…
Anyway! Anomalisa is another entry into Charlie Kaufman’s cannon of films about a search for meaning through relationships, and the futility of trying to find happiness or satisfaction through someone or something else when you’re not at least partially happy with yourself. While not up to the stratospheric standard of Synecdoche, New York, Anomalisa still adds to the case for Kaufman being one of the ambitious and boldest writers working today; tackling the big questions of life, people and relationships in the modern world. And he makes incredible puppet sex scenes. Let’s see Terrence Malick do that!
Anomalisa is out on Blu-Ray and DVD from July 11.