In today’s America, you must have money for your disaffection to be interesting. At least this is the case in Charlie Kaufman’s downbeat stop-motion animation film, Anomalisa. Like some slim and semi-acclaimed allegorical novel recently translated into English, it’s a story about a man alone in a strange city having dreamlike encounters while wrestling with his inner demons. Along the way, he meets a variety of people lower down the socioeconomic ladder than him, and treats them terribly.
If this depressed fellow worked as an office temp or bank clerk and lived in a lousy neighborhood, Anomalisa wouldn’t have had much to say about him. Miserable? Of course he’d be miserable, and not in a way that would make for drama. But because he’s a successful businessman (and British, to boot) with a wife and child and thus has little apparent reason to be unhappy with his life, the film assumes we share its interest in his problems.
When we first see Michael Stone (David Thewlis) on a plane flying to Cincinnati, he reads as the sort of misanthrope who can stand the company of others just long enough to tell them where to get off. His entirely unsuited career? Customer service specialist. He’s traveled from Los Angeles to flyover country to give a speech, but he has no more heart for it than he has for life itself.
A drifting corporate road warrior, Michael is distracted, reading and re-reading an old letter from an ex-girlfriend excoriating him for the heartless way he abandoned her. Early in the film, his every interaction — on the airplane, in a cab to the hotel, with a bellhop — is an excruciatingly prolonged gauntlet of grating small talk and narcissistic fantasies. Calling home from his room, Michael can barely suffer through a few seconds of chat with his wife and shows a genuine loathing for his young son.
Michael isn’t just suffocated by malaise and depression. Kaufman’s typically askew screenplay packs incipient madness into the film’s cracking scrim of reality. Everyone Michael meets, male and female, is voiced in the same flat and slightly menacing tone by Tom Noonan. Michael imagines (or does he?) that part of his own face falls off, revealing him to be an android. Everyone knows his name but nobody understands him. “It’s boring,” Michael moans in response to a compliment on his upscale hotel room. “Everything’s boring.”
In turn, like someone in a Neil LaBute play, Michael spreads his pain around. After a scorched-earth encounter with the letter-writing ex-girlfriend, he strikes up a conversation with two young women at the hotel, who are in town to attend his talk. Basking in their adoration, he starts forcefully pursuing Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the homelier of the two (though, in this stop-motion animation world where everyone looks alike, attractiveness is a relative concept), dumping all of his unrealized hopes and dreams onto her shoulders. Again, as in a LaBute piece, Michael’s melodrama seems like preamble leading up to the revelation of how devastatingly he will demolish this decent and yearning young woman.
Since everything in Michael’s world is spattered with clusters of surrealism and self-pity, it’s difficult to take much of what is happening too seriously. That’s to be expected. Writer and co-director Kaufman has made a career out of exploring the grubby interior passageways of narcissistic gloamers by way of postmodern hand tricks.
Like many of his stories, Anomalisa derives its spark from the sight of a washed-up man chasing after a life force of a woman for whom he is almost certainly bad news. But lacking Synechdoche, New York’s boundary-shattering adventurousness or the potent romanticism of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Anomalisa can’t generate enough interest in its depressed protagonist to make us care about its possible love story.
Michael is never more than the sum of his tics and bleak pronouncements: “I lose everyone,” he complains. With this, he articulates this R-rated animation’s focus on existential rootlessness. That doesn’t mean he quite explains what else goes on, including a touchingly awkward lovemaking scene. As it layers such familiar ideas, spoken and unspoken, Anomalisa stands on its own, for better or worse. But none of Kaufman and his co-director Duke Johnson’s gimmicks helps to make these layers come alive.
Even Lisa, whose genuine warmth and shyness could well serve as the film’s heart, is ill-served by a barely-concealed condescension. While Michael sinks into his mostly unexplored torpor, she chatters on about his intellect and how dumb she is by comparison, pausing just long enough in the glowing sunlight for him to think he’s in love with this simple creature. It’s almost as though the film is saying she’s not smart enough to be depressed. But there is no way that the filmmakers meant that. Right?