Like me, a lot of you are fans of Charlie Kaufman, writer of some of the most unusually conceived American films of the last decade: Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Reportedly his scripts for those films were somewhat altered by their directors. Kaufman’s first film as a director, Synecdoche, New York, wasn’t as commercially successful as those: It’s dour and difficult, less a maze with a reward at the end for the patient viewer than a spiral taking you down the drain into oblivion. But it pulled you into its obsessions about art and life and death; I saw it three times and found something new each time.
So I was eager to see Anomalisa, Kaufman’s first film since 2008, when it played the Toronto Film Festival in September.
I loathed it. I disliked it so much that when I saw it a second time at a local screening in December, willing to give it another chance, I left halfway through. It’s only 90 minutes long, but at a certain point I just couldn’t face looking at another 45 minutes of it.
I know that a lot of you have been looking forward to Anomalisa’s local opening. Far be it from me to talk you out of a film you’re looking forward to, and let me point out that I seem to be alone in my opinion. Of the 38 reviews compiled on metacritic.com, all but two are positive, and even those two are mixed. Nearly half of the positive reviews are scored 100 percent—an unqualified rave. So if you buy a ticket and afterward want to tell me I’m wrong, you will certainly be in the majority: I’m not trying to ruin anything for you.
That said, as far as I’m concerned Anomalisa is 90 minutes of Kaufman rubbing your nose in how stultifying banal modern life is. His protagonist is Michael Stone, a writer of motivational books. His latest is How May I Help You Help Them?, a guide for sales workers. When we first meet him he is on a plane approaching Cincinnati, where he has been booked to speak at a convention of customer service reps. While he’s here, he also plans to look up his ex-girlfriend, whom he broke up with for reasons even he doesn’t understand years ago. He has since married and had a son.
At this point, I guess I need to mention that Michael and all the other characters are portrayed by stop-action puppets. They have been painstakingly created, and look about as real as the characters in motion-capture movies like The Polar Express, which is to say, lacking in the expressive possibilities of animation but close enough to people on the street to be disconcerting.
Why did Kaufman (in collaboration with co-director Duke Johnson) chose this method for a story that seemingly could have been accomplished more simply with real actors? For one thing, because Michael (whose voice is provided by David Thewlis) sees everyone as essentially the same: They all talk with the same voice (provided for male and female characters alike by Tom Noonan), and they all look more or less the same, which is easier to do with puppets than with actors and actresses.
When he meets up with his ex, she is no different. It isn’t until after their meeting goes badly that he hears a voice that is different (and provided by Jennifer Jason Leigh). He sets out to pursue it. Will the woman bearing it bring happiness into his miserable life? Do you really want me to answer that?
Michael is staying at a place called the Fregoli Hotel, a reference to Fregoli syndrome, a disorder in which one thinks that a person or other people, or in rare instances all other people, are actually the same person. (There’s a theory that John du Pont, subject of last year’s film Foxcatcher, suffered from this.) In interviews Kaufman has warned against taking that too literally: Michael does not suffer from Fregoli delusion (as it is also called), and it would clearly be an entirely different story of he did.
No, Michael is merely a sad man with no grip on his life, But I found it next to impossible to feel anything for him, least of all sympathy. He’s too thinly sketched, a mope in an ugly world. He doesn’t know why he hates his life and the people in it, and grasps at straws in an attempt to save himself, an attempt doomed to failure.
That’s a formula for a dull movie. The reason why I hated it is that Kaufman has stacked the deck against him. From the opening of the movie, Michael exists in a trivial, soul-numbing world whose banality the filmmakers belabor. The cabbie who takes him from the airport to his hotel prattles on about the wonders of Cincinnati, even though he seems to know next to nothing about it. The bellboy who takes his bags to his room drones on and on explaining things that don’t need to be explained. The room service operator who takes his order insists on repeating every part of it back to him in the full marketing name of each item. The people he meets can’t make conversation, they can only whine about their own dull problems, or repeat third-hand quips from pop culture.
Of course the world is full of stuff like this: It’s the polluted sea we all swim in every day. But we don’t dwell on it. You can find happiness and contentment in the world—maybe not enough, but at least you make the effort. And if you want to complain, there are things you can complain about where your shared perspective might make a difference. Anomalisa is 90 minutes of contempt for life that refuses to find anything good in the world. It’s a movie that makes you happy to get back to reality. It’s also a movie that makes you feel very sorry for the man who made it.
Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino got the largest audience of his career for last year’s The Great Beauty, winning of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Oscar winners often follow their success up with an indulgent pet project, which is certainly one way to view Youth. Working with a cast filled with internationally recognizable names—Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Jane Fonda, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, and British neo-soul singer Paloma Faith—Sorrentino has put together an loosely woven essay on aging in a format that once again recalls Fellini: A retired conductor (Caine) looks back on his life while vacationing at a Swiss resort. It’s a film that engages you in many small ways even if the plot thread tying everything together is never quite satisfying. It’s lovely to look at, in the ways we imagine the lives of the rich and famous must be, and has at least a few juicy clumps of dialogue for every member of the leading cast to chew on. And it’s fun to watch Caine and Keitel working together—given the number of movies the two have in their combined credits, it’s hard to believe they’ve never done so together before.