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  • Articles by Susan

    Film review: Anomalisa by Charlie Kaufman

    Charlie Kaufman’s latest film brings us Michael Stone, a motivational speaker and writer, who has been suffering a midlife crisis for at least a decade. The story follows Michael over one day as he flies to Cincinnati to speak about customer service. Alienated from his wife, Michael tries to take up with an ex-girlfriend and failing that in spectacular fashion, tries again with Lisa, a lonely saleswoman who has come to his talk.

    Kaufman has made a career out of exploring identity and journeys into the mind: Synecdoche, Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Michael is Kaufman’s latest character to take us on that journey. And so the premise which plays around with identity, angst, interior life and vulnerability all wrapped up in the guise of a business trip, was good enough; or should have been.

    Anomalisa starts out enticingly enough. As Michael moves through his journey a creepiness emerges. All the characters he meets are basically the same. Same expression, same features, same voice. The stop motion puppets are wonderfully apposite here, just realistic enough to make the viewer sit up and be aware and are a good way of exploring the relationship between artifice and naturalism that is exhibited by Michael in his life. The puppets also suggest that we are all automata, and that Michael’s raging angst has pitched him into an existential crisis that has stripped away his puppet persona and revealed his humanity

    The voiceover is clever too, with Kaufman using one person (Tom Noonan) for all characters, male and female, apart from Michael (David Thewlis) and Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh).  It made the film difficult to negotiate until I got the hang of it (sending me up a blind alley and making me think Michael was a gay man splitting up from his male lover), but eventually the creepy anodyne rhythm of speech captured the dislocation at the centre of the film and added to the sense of unreality.  

    But it’s one thing for Kaufman to make a career out of exploring human misery, it’s another to bore your audience into its own existential crisis by revelling in the misery of a deeply bored and deeply boring individual. There is an hour of grinding tedium to endure before even the vague prospect of a plot emerges in Anomalisa as Michael laboriously takes a plane, takes a taxi, books into the hotel and fumbles with opening the door to his room.  It would be enough to drive the sanest person to distraction, although it’s interspersed with masterful short scenes that help the story along: puppet sex has never been so horribly embarrassing or protracted, nor a shower scene so wince-making. And Lisa’s heart-rending delivery of Girls Just Want to Have Fun must rank as one of the best scenes in any film during the past year.

    The problem is that Michael, with his whining British accent, his dour outlook, cannot engage us the audience, and that makes him totally unbelievable as a supposedly best-selling motivational writer and speaker. The sheer dullness of his life pours over into the film and repelled me a viewer. Not only that, but Michael comes over as unlikeable and untrustworthy, compounded by his treatment of Lisa, which borders on the sadistic.

    Poor Lisa, she’s not going to get any fun out of Michael. And neither did I. If Michael wants to see some real existential angst he should check out Bart Simpson in A Totally Fun Thing That Bart Will Never Do Again. That might cheer him up a bit.

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