2015, R, 90 min. Directed by Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson. Voices by David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Jan. 15, 2016
“Look for what is special in each and every individual.” That’s sound advice from a customer-service expert, who is addressing a hotel convention of eager acolytes. But the irony is, this customer service expert can’t tell one person from another. Numb to human connection, Michael (voiced by David Thewlis) will encounter a cab driver, a bellhop, an ex-girlfriend, and see the same face, hear the same voice, over and over again. Michael is cracking up from so much sameness.
Anomalisa’s great ingenuity is in how it imagines Michael’s carbon-copied perception of the world: with stop-motion puppets and a single voice to speak for the masses. The faces all share the unnerving smoothness of a Noh mask, with the hint of Zosia Mamet’s high cheekbones. The voice is that of Tom Noonan (he played the tragic doppelgänger in Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut, 2008’s Synecdoche, New York), who playfully (dis)embodies men, women, and children by pitching his voice higher and lower, in turns coquettish and growly.
Michael’s condition has a name – the Fregoli delusion (hat-tipped in the name of the Cincinnati hotel Michael stays at); Kaufman, who wrote the film and co-directed it with Duke Johnson, similarly plucked inspiration from psychology’s rich, addled innards in Synecdoche with the Capgras syndrome. I think the filmmakers are using Fregoli as a metaphor, not an actual medical condition gone undiagnosed, for Michael’s blindness to life’s rich pageantry, that old chestnut. That doesn’t mean Michael is not observant: The first act is a bemusing catalog of banalities – the way a hotel desk clerk efficiently types while never breaking eye contact, or a bellhop lingers in the hopes of a tip – but these familiarities don’t richen on second viewing, or a second thought.
In any case, Michael snaps out of it when he suddenly hears a woman’s voice – differentiated, musical – a miracle. (She’s even lit sometimes to look halo-like.) Lisa (touchingly voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a customer-service rep who’s in town to hear Michael speak. She is sweet, diffident, a little bit kooky, and absolutely gob-smacked that this “guru” is giving her the time of day. This stretch is Anomalisa’s best, and it includes the film’s much-heralded sex scene, a deeply realistic interplay that moves from the awkward, initial sorries inevitable to humans tentatively touching one another for the first time to a tender unspokenness as they open themselves up to the experience.
I won’t spoil where the film goes next – only to say it doesn’t go much of anywhere. The filmmakers don’t endorse Michael’s solipsism, but we’re stuck with it anyway – the film is entirely from his point of view, save a lovely, pacifying final shot. Even the filmmakers couldn’t bear to end with the dispiriting, not-so-special Michael.