Charlie Kaufman is a weird guy. If you look through his backlog of credits as a writer you’ll stumble upon gems such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation and Being John Malkovich. Weird films. Good, but weird. In his latest film, Anomalisa, Kaufman probably thinks he is carrying on his great tradition of writing weird films with weird characters. Anomalisa, however, is probably not as weird as he would like to think it is. In fact Anomalisa simply re-tells a tired old narrative which we’ve all seen and heard many times before. The story of a man going through a mid-life crisis, desperate to find something to make him feel alive again. That thing he finds? A young girl who makes him feel complete and dusts away the loneliness even for just one night. It’s pretty much the set-up for nearly every single Woody Allen movie. Not that I would know of course, never watched a Woody Allen film (probably my most proudest accomplishment to this day).
Here are the facts. Anomalisa has some phenomenal moments. Most of those moments lie within the realm of the uncanny valley. The use of puppets is ingenious as a way of exploring a narrative which is pretty much based around what it is to be human and to feel emotions. To feel like everyone else is the same person and you are the only one who is different. The puppetry and animation in Anomalisa works because everyone else literally is the same. Same face, same voice. Those puppets look real enough to be human but we are constantly reminded (by these small details) that they are not. There are moments when the stunning animation and the full realisation of the uncanny valley come together and Anomalisa feels like a really great film. Sadly, these moments are far and few between. In the gaps between the ‘magic’ there are elongated silences and messy sequences that don’t seem to fit together properly.
The main issue with Anomalisa, in my own humble opinion, is that trope I mentioned earlier. The film’s protagonist, customer service expert Michael Stone (David Thewlis), is in the grips of one of those mid life crises that only ageing white men seem to have. I mean, really does anyone else ever get to have a mid-life crisis? Pssst. The all too familiar disconnect from everyone around him, the exasperated conversations with hotel staff. Everyone looks the same, everyone sounds the same. I almost began to feel sorry for Michael, in the way that Kaufman expects us to. And yes, maybe if I was a 55 year old man, I would have identified more with Michael and not found him so utterly creepy and pathetic when he meets an ex-girlfriend in the hotel bar for a few drinks. This meeting, not twenty minutes into the film was the big red flag, flapping around in the wind whispering ‘get the fuck out of there’. Essentially, he meets up with his ex girl-friend because he thinks it will make him feel better about his unsettling boring and dull life. When she realises that all he wants is to have sex with her (to make himself feel better), she yells at him and leaves. For some odd reason, we are then supposed to feel sorry for Michael. Yeah, I don’t get it either.
After this weird incident, and a few more drinks probably, Michael meets Lisa and her friend Emily, two fans of his book. Lisa is different. I mean, really different. She doesn’t sound like everyone else and she doesn’t look like everyone else. Could this be the woman Michael needs to complete the puzzle that his life has become?! Could this woman slot into his life exactly how he needs her to, because he needs her to, with no thought or concern about her own life? Of course she can! She has self esteem issues! She’s also a huge fan of his work (his book on smiling at customers), which means he can expertly take complete advantage of her because she idolises him like a God! Yay! It’s creepy, but we’ve seen this story so many times before that it’s no longer a surprise when we find out that our male protagonist doesn’t actually care about their younger counterpart. Michael doesn’t like Lisa because of her dazzling personality or because they have insane chemistry. They aren’t even compatible. He just likes her because she fills a void in his life. Lisa serves no other purpose than to be different from everyone else, and exists only as an entity to make Michael feel like he isn’t a complete psychopath (which, of course he is).
So the really odd thing here is that I feel like Kaufman wasn’t actively trying to deconstruct these ridiculous ideas that middle aged men have about young impressionable women (yes, Woody Allen again I’m looking right at you), instead I felt like Anomalisa wanted us to relate to Michael because he was sad and grumpy about his future. Boo.
After walking out of the cinema, I was confused. This film was not meant for me, that much was clear. There certainly were moments, however, where I felt Anomalisa was right on my level of thinking. Michael is incredibly creepy towards Lisa in the hotel when he separates her from Emily. Their dialogue in his hotel room consists pretty much solely of him telling Lisa she’s beautiful, and her protesting. It was weird and uncomfortable. There were clear indicators of a complete abuse of power by Michael over Lisa, and when I racked all these things up, I concluded that (in some way) Kaufman was trying to de-compact the older-man-younger-woman scenario. Then I started to think about why I felt the film wasn’t for me. Namely, because I am not having a mid-life crisis, nor am I even approaching the middle of my life (I hope). I began to think about the experiences in my life that made me feel so strongly about Lisa and Michael’s brief relationship and why I would read this film in such a different way to how Kaufman probably intended it to be read. Then it dawned on me. I’m Lisa.
I mean, I’m not. I’ve never had a relationship with an older man and I sure as shit wouldn’t take Michael’s attitude/looks/chip-on-shoulder. However, I am a young woman, and I’ve seen the way older men look at young girls and I’ve seen all of those films trying to justify the exploitative relationships by using the word ‘breakdown’. Walking into Anomalisa, I have a background of experiences and knowledge that Charlie Kaufman and the middle aged men watching this film simply do not have. I enjoyed Anomalisa whilst I was reading it as a critique of that type of relationship. I also felt it was doing a great job of telling some home truths about men who destroy people around them under the guise of having a mid-life crisis. Then I realised that Kaufman modelled Michael on himself, and that the possibility of the film’s target audience even contemplating this film as critique of that behaviour is unlikely.
I’m not sure really of what I thought about Anomalisa. It made me reflect on how I read a film, how I negotiate my viewing with my prior experiences. If pushed, I’d say I didn’t like it. It had a lot of potential but never paid off. And honestly, I was enjoying it until I realised that I was supposed to be identifying with Michael, not laughing at him. Which, of course, I continued to do so anyway because he’s a fucking idiot.