"Anomalisa" (2015) enlightens the everyday

by Andrew Kingsley | 1/31/16 7:00pm

After three years of intense craftsmanship, Charlie Kaufman returns with his unique blend of cerebral revelry and metaphysical, sympathetic protagonists in his 2015 film “Anomalisa.” After his meta-cinematic, surrealist style reached its apotheosis in “Synecdoche, New York”(2008), Kaufman tempers his typically impenetrable psychosomatics to create the most accessible and haunting film of his illustrious career.

The film stars Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), who flies into Cincinnati to deliver a speech on his new customer service book. He is the high priest of the banal who prosthelytizes the robotic, unfeeling rhetoric of service representatives. Bellhops and bureaucrats with painted smiles worship him. Michael stays at the upscale Fregoli Hotel — named after the disorder in which a person holds the delusional belief that different people are the same person who changes appearance — and settles in for a boring, Cincinnati night. He calls his wife and kid, orders room service, then reaches out to an old flame which blows up in his face. After a paranoiac frenzy finds him banging on hotel doors, two sycophantic women welcome Michael into their room. One prostitutes herself, the other, Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), remains shy and ashamed of her own essence. Yet to Michael, Lisa proves extraordinary, her voice warmly distinct from the rest like a beautiful anomaly. They share an evening of drinks, casual sex and an a capella rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” (1983).

While the film has no fireworks, no upbeat montages of the couple running around the city “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961) style, it achieves a remarkable enlightenment in its relative inaction. Like an animated “Lost in Translation”(2003), “Anomalisa” features markedly aimless and un-animated protagonists and finds the life within them. Despite the minor flourishes of Kaufmanesque cerebral dark humor, the film maintains a steadfast dedication to their unsexy mundanity. It is the stuff you never see on travel shows: the sterile hotel rooms, the flights, the taxi small talk. But Kaufman reveals the intense humanity in these unsensational moments, as they are the ones we all share but never admit to. The one-night stand and business trip, events often regarded as life’s detritus, are given a cinematic grandeur and lyricism. These are the moments of awkwardness and vulnerability; we are displaced, en route, unsettled. But these escapist flashes promise freedom from the everyday, the spiritual morass which Kaufman portrays as nightmarishly stifling.

The film confronts this sublime terror of the everyday and the robotic infinitude of workaday existence. Even the production of the film has a robotic immensity to it — as Marshall McLuhan theorized, the medium is the message. The film is comprised of 118,089 individual photographic frames assembled into stop-motion animation. Each prop was hand crafted and every puppet’s gesture a result of an animator’s full day’s work. There’s an insanity to that hyper-repetitive production, and perhaps Kaufman created a directorial analog to his character’s own existential suffering. For example, Chris repeatedly orders a Belvedere martini with a twist, a once suave cocktail spoiled by overuse. Thanks to Chris’ Fregoli syndrome, everyone has the same apathetic, monotone voice and ventriloquizes the same script about Cincinnati’s chili, zoo and weather. Yet Lisa shatters this mise-en-abyme effect of his scripted life precisely in her resignation from everyday existence. She proves fantastical in her defeated, unremarkable nature.

In a way, this Kaufmaesque tale becomes Kafkaesque, as Chris’ brief metamorphosis becomes startling not due to his transformation or enlightenment, but rather due to the ennui and stagnation surrounding him. There is no triumphant escape from the abyssal repetitiveness of family life and middle-class work, rather an acceptance and a martyrdom of the everyman much like “Bicycle Thieves”(1948). It is the confrontation of this inertia that makes “Anomalisa” a truly enlightened and revelatory film. When the credits rolled, no audience member stood up. The film works on the mysterious, sublime scale of a Mona Lisa smile, and communicates with the longing for some form of transcendence that perhaps drives us all, yet may only lead us back to the banal.


Rating: 10/10

“Anomalisa” is now playing at the Nugget Theater at 4:20 p.m. and 7 p.m.

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