The Whole-Less Man: A Review of “Anomalisa”

A 2015 New Orleans Film Festival / Spotlight Narrative Feature

Nobody sees the state of things quite like Charlie Kaufman. In the films he’s written and/or directed, there is a thickly awkward attitude and heightened atmosphere of relationship and perception quirks. There is always something wrong with the world and the people in it — something off balance, off axis. Whatever that something is, is undetermined and ultimately irrelevant.

For Kaufman, the state of things is told through our connections with one another and with ourselves. How we speak to others, how we carry our bodies, how we look in the mirror, how we hug a relative, etc. Every meticulous moment and movement is important, from what is said to what is unsaid.

Everything is off, nothing is right

Anomalisa continues this trend, but in a new and perhaps more vibrant manner. By new, I mean good old fashioned stop motion animation. By vibrant, I mean in how that animation utilizes and expresses the deep sadness of a whole-less man. A man with an empty void inside him, probably of his own making. He’ll never understand how and why, and is doomed to feel incomplete forever.

In a world that annoys him and feels wrong.

Wanting

If you think of Anomalisa as a somewhat darker extension of Spike Jonze’s Her, you may be both on a right track and potentially mistaken. While both movies do share a romantic vision of human wanting, one is less optimistic than the other. One is more bittersweet than the other. One is more… sharply edged and… tormenting than the other. Both are deeply felt, but only one gets at something that I wish were properly explored more often — the inability and unwillingness to evolve as a person.

The movie takes place during a business trip in Cincinnati. Michael Stone is an author and authority on customer service, and will be giving a speech at a convention the next day. Everyone he meets while heading towards his hotel is polite, a bit quirky-ish and sound just about the same. Man or Woman. Repetition, redundancy, the mundane and the banal have seemingly conquered this man. This man who is more desperate than of high moral compass.

Desperate for something and someone new. He’s married to a loving wife, has a son, friends, etc. Even though they share their feelings and lives with him, he is unable to reciprocate. Or, perhaps, unwilling.

Arriving in his room, Michael goes to take a pee. As the urine leaves him, he lets out the most saddest of sighs. Did he make that noise to remind him of where he’s at in life? Was it for an audience of zero? There is a clearly manufactured look to his and other animations. When the characters speak, their faces move to almost reveal something underneath, as if they were robots. We know that Michael and every other person are being manipulated by unseen hands by virtue of this being stop motion, but the way the figures are crafted expresses this most visually. We are in control of our lives and feelings, but do we know and understand and accept that? Do we want to pretend it’s out of our hands and in someone elses?

His one night stay in Cincinnati reveals a former flame he attempts to hook up with, but forgets soon after when he hears the voice of Lisa. He becomes utterly and hopelessly smitten with her, ignoring and forsaking any other real relationship he already has and previously had for some time with her. It’s pathetic, watching someone live so selfishly and treat others as toys to be played with in one moment and discarded in the next.

Anomalisa is a dystopian now for our collective emotional existence. Michael doesn’t want his life, but also doesn’t know what he’d like to replace it with. He’s in a never ending loop of an existential crisis, where opportunities for learning answers come and go either over his head or ignored completely. It’s fascinating, watching someone behave like this. It’s self sabotage in the worst way possible. Could he enjoy living this way? Could he live any other way?

If only he could unravel Lisa. If only he could understand, there would be hope for him yet.

Kaufman’s Anomalisa might be more familiar of a world than he’s explored before. If Up in the Air suffered from groaning depression and less Clooney-isms, it’d be something like this. Something. No matter how fast transportation and communication technology improves and brings us together, people will find someway to avoid connecting, thereby feeling, thereby feeling responsibility, thereby being human. In this world, machines are ideal. We are wanting to be like them. In Her, they are wanting to be like us. We are ideal to them.

Double feature, anyone?

Rating — *****

Through Michael and Lisa, Kaufman gives us a dissection of love and feelings in multiple parts, believe it or not. In fact, Anomalisa might be the best movie about the unique phenomenon of having and disabling human emotions in a long time. Or maybe of all time.

Independent film critic. Progressive po’ boy, moviegoing romantic. SEFCA member, 🍅 - approved. Newsletter at moviesdm.substack.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store