Michael Stone (voiced by Thewlis) has travelled to Cincinnati as a guest speaker on customer service. His recent book has bestowed an esoteric air of celebrity to his appearance. The film follows Michael through what should be a mundane weekend of airports, hotels, boredom and his trip home to his family. Instead, he has an unhinged, uncanny few days. His life is momentarily lifted out of his self-exasperation when he has an affair with the “extraordinary” titular Lisa (voiced by Leigh).
This project began life as a sound play in collaboration with Carter Burwell and which featured these same three actors. It was staged in both America and London and then left to posterity. Years and a ‘kickstarter’ campaign later, a feature film was made possible. The theatrical roots of the dialogue are still imprinted on the cinematic product. There are truly only three characters in this fully-fleshed universe and it’s their meticulously drawn human interactions which are the foundations of the surreal realism of Anomalisa.
Kaufman was interested in the ‘Fregoli delusion’ by which some people believe that everyone other than themselves is actually a single person, in disguise somehow. It’s somewhat paranoiac, but the kind of subject which Kaufman was intrigued by as a starting point, and considering his oeuvre, is not at all out of character. Therefore Tom Noonan voices every same-faced character Michael comes into contact with; his taxi driver, the bellboy at the hotel, his ex-lover and everyone attending his conference speech. They are all individuals, but look and sound the same, be they male or female. It’s a dizzying premise.
In his set-piece speech near the end of the film, Michael discusses treating the customer as an individual, searching for what is special about that customer and exploring it in order to forge a meaningful connection. However, like the connections in Michael’s life, this advice is in effect, a falsehood, a superficial play at true social interaction. The idea of the faceless customer advisor on the end of the phone feels like an extension of the ‘Fregoli delusion’. Apparently, Kaufman chose Michael’s profession based on some experience he had in the field when he was younger. It seems unlikely to be the only reason. Surely Kaufman is merely coy to reveal all his secrets to his audience.
Anomalisa is a technical, provocative masterpiece. Where Kaufman’s previous screenplays have left audiences’ hearts gripped in his fists, he doesn’t quite take full hold in his latest. The depiction of Michael’s downward spiral coupled with the alienation effects detailed above mean that his awakening at the altar of Lisa doesn’t cut through in the desired manner. Michael’s reply in answer to why Lisa might be extraordinary could equally apply to the film as a whole; “I don’t know yet”. The implication being that Michael is unsure, but eager to learn. It poses more questions than it answers with this sense of dissatisfaction possibly even the crux of the film as a whole.
As Being John Malkoivich haunts the psyche long after the credits – and continues to – Anomalisa will make you think and rethink. Its themes, originality and nuances are endlessly ponderable.
Review By George Meixner