Amid the profuse acclaim for Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa in late 2015 flowed a caveat current. The film’s protagonist, some critics judged (and in a couple extreme cases dismissed) is an unlikable little puppet.
Indeed, Anomalisa’s Michael Stone — a successful but disingenuous corporate author, a cheating womanizer and a neurotic not self-hating enough to be sympathetic — doesn’t elicit much rooting in the film that arrived this week on Blu-ray and digital rental.
In Vulture, David Edelstein called the film’s misery “complacent.”
“Once you start reckoning with Anomalisa’s obsession with self-absorption,” wrote Time’s Stephanie Zacharek, “the novelty of this one-man pity party begins to wear off.”
“The filmmakers don’t endorse Michael’s solipsism, but we’re stuck with it anyway,” said the Austin Chronicle’s Kimberly Jones.
On the one hand Michael is a quintessential Kaufman protagonist: morose, detached, self-serving. But when it comes to other crucial traits, this man is strikingly different than the celebrated screenwriter’s parade of bigheaded, but absentminded, artists.
First, of course, there’s the fact that this particular Kaufman vessel of maladjustment is not a man. Throughout the evening and morning the film spends with him at a Cincinnati hotel, the puppet’s face blinks strikingly and sags naturally, as though the tip of its nose were feebly magnetized to the floor. The lethargy to its squat kinetics meets the distinct curtness of English actor David Thewlis’ voice, suggesting Michael’s brain working quickly on its way to words. Still, brief obligatory exchanges with cab drivers or clerks are unbearable for him. This is, after all, a Kaufman world at the hotel Fregoli, which is named for a rare disorder causing multiple people to appear as the same person. (This, if you haven’t seen the film, is how Michael experiences everyone he encounters — bellhop, ex-lover, airplane seatmate, wife, son — before hearing Jennifer Jason Leigh’s voice as Lisa.)
In a cozy and eerie 90 minutes, Kaufman has deceptively written and co-directed one of his most challenging features, reversing and displacing the colossal filmic challenges within the scripts of Adaptation, Being John Malkovich and Synecdoche, New York. Even if Anomalisa is guided by surrealism, it’s some of the plainest wall-and-carpet realism he’s done, which seems crazy to say about a movie starring puppets. For audience and central character alike, the towering question of “Life, do you get it?” has been replaced by: “Life, can you stand it?”
In his quiet sub-film-drubbing among reviewers, Michael Stone is a rare Kaufman protagonist, and his lack of charm isn’t what solidifies that distinction. There wasn’t so much problem-free entertainment in the delusions of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Caden Cotard tyrannically overseeing his life play (Synecdoche), Nicolas Cage’s Kaufman babbling through writer’s block (Adaptation) or John Cusack’s Craig Schwartz doing his double puppeteering (Malkovich). Their obsessions, self-monologues and waking dream states were hardly victimless. Often, Kaufman’s women characters bore the resultant suffering. But much of the relief with the traditional Kaufman protagonist is in that they want, in desperate and surreal ways, what we assume the writer himself wants: love, legacies, to create art so large and richly inscrutable as to merit a word like “genius.” Through most of his work, he seemed most interested in funhouse mirroring the pitfalls of artistic life. In that way, the endeavor often felt thorough, and you could take meaning from its archipelago of post-modern ideas, even they formed no traversable landmass.
Michael Stone is not an artist. In some ways, he’s the opposite, peddling his industry-ubiquitous book, How May I Help You Help Them?, which its author finds neither enlightening nor original. He’s more self-aware Willy Loman, than Charlie Kaufman. In his interactions with Anomalisa’s women (old flame Bella and object of attraction Lisa), there is genuine struggle, but mostly from the failure of his pick-up routine — drink, overreach, hastily apologize, cite psychological glitch, reach again.
In the Kaufman universes, far more detestable than a touched person distractedly tearing down his life is an apparently sane being who, when faced with the realization he may not be a good person, claims mental defect. In doing so, Michael Stone expresses a desire to join the ranks of Kaufman protagonists. For the most part, and viewers put off by Michael’s cocktail of moral bankruptcy and lust can likely sense this, Anomalisa rejects his plea.
In simply checking the balance of goods delivered unto the world, Michael is not a creator, despite, as eager side characters keep telling him, raising the productivity of several companies by 90 percent with his book. He’s a taker, with such covetous focus that the fading of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s voice into Tom Noonan’s feels like near mythological consequence handed down from Kaufman. (Noonan voices every character in the film but Michael and Lisa.) The punishment fits the crime considering Michael’s epical attraction to Lisa’s facial scar, a marking rendering her different from every other uniformly peach-skinned puppet. Against the airport conveyor belt of his life, Michael collects. In this respect, Anomalisa offers a dim view of humanity in general — the closest we’ve probably gotten to Kaufman’s take on general citizenry. The average person attempts to stave off malaise by habitual objectifying, reaching out for the pleasures that seems attainable. Michael’s methods, his lack of shame in sexual invitations, may seem uncommonly premeditated, but there’s still a real run-of-the-mill hedonism coalescing in his emotionally bare and tender sex with Lisa.
The deepest filmography bond with Anomalisa, and the most substantial Kaufman reversal therefrom, is with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In the acclaimed 2004 outing (probably Kaufman’s poppiest to date) Jim Carrey’s Joel Barish attempts to cleanse himself of depression with a shady neuro-startup. In the midst of erasing memories of his ex-girlfriend, Clementine (Kate Winslet), Joel becomes lucid and chases Clementine through rewinding strands of his memory, trying not to lose them.
Other than the existence of Lacuna Inc. and the deep trenches of the human mind, Sunshine, like Anomalisa, is a tame enough Kaufman universe, and Joel is a fairly normal, if ultimately difficult, character. Sunshine props up a discernable central question for its audience: Better to have loved and lost than never loved at all? The clear-enough premise landed Kaufman his most successful box office outing to date (Sunshine grossed $34 million. Kaufman’s last two outings combined didn’t crack $10 million.)
Anomalisa wonders something similar about relationships. But instead of, what if willfully employed technology existed to diminish your love and individuality, the new film asks, what would a person be like if he actually believed those mechanics existed in the natural universe? What sort of person in his mind’s eye experiences life as out to gut him of uniqueness? It’s the near-science-fiction query of Sunshine spread out and universalized. Kaufman answers loudly: that person would be disturbingly self-absorbed.
Is it too much to call Anomalisa a kind of referendum on Eternal Sunshine? Possibly. On the one hand, looking through Michael’s doleful, over-dilated puppet pupils is something akin to recanting the Manic Pixie trouble within Sunshine. Michael makes Joel’s fallible, male, hetero projecting more explicit. In Anomalisa, Michael’s instantly possessive view of Lisa as a messianic romantic figure is rigidly apparent. More broadly, Anomalisa’s textural beauty ironically gets at the dry and dark side of the Kaufman man, how cruel he can seem when he inherits all his creators’ traits except imagination.