“Anomalisa,” this year’s animated darling for many top-notch film critics, has been touted as the “most human film of the year,” sans any humans on the screen. From the creative mind of screenwriter and director Charlie Kaufman, “Anomalisa” emerges as a stark contrast from its competitors in the Academy Awards’ Best Animated Feature Film category, which includes Pixar’s crowd favorite, “Inside Out.” Once watching the film, I realized the critics’ frequented line of praise foreshadows a much deeper truth that emerges within the context of the film’s narrative.
Before anyone watches this film, they should be addressed with a disclaimer: “Anomalisa” being an animated film does imply that its story will have you leaving smiling and uplifted. In fact, the film had quite the opposite effect on me. While swiping into Val after the movie, a friend of mine stopped me and asked why I looked so sad — apparently my frown that grew from the film’s ending was still showing. However, despite the themes and content that are geared towards an older audience in “Anomalisa,” Kaufman leaves viewers pondering age-old questions about life, much like its Pixar counterpart “Inside Out.” The film’s questions, such as the causal relationship between capitalism and loneliness, are just slightly more sophisticated. Moreover, these themes are amplified by Kaufman’s skilled use of stop-motion and audio effects.
The premise of the film is anchored in one of the most mundane adult experiences in existence: a business trip. It is set in the near past, during President George W. Bush’s second term, and is concentrated in an upscale Midwest hotel. Michael Stone, the story’s flawed protagonist, is a published author on business efficiency and holds a small degree of fame and fortune in the customer service sector. He travels from Los Angeles to Cincinnati to deliver a speech to a batch of his admirers at a seminar. Having lived in both cities, I was keenly aware of the symbolism they embodied in the film; despite their contrasting reputations, both atmospheres can be excruciatingly artificial and mundane.
From the very beginning, when the screen is still showing the opening credits and a B-roll of random dialogue is playing behind it, you may notice something awry. There are multiple conversations overlapping each other, but each voice sounds bizarrely similar. As the screen opens on an airplane from the window view of a passenger seat within another airplane, the murmuring conversations continue to overlap one another. Hundreds of humans, confined in small capsules in the sky, making connections through conversation, all appear to sound the same — that is, until a man grabs Stone’s hand in fright during the plan’s landing. Stone’s British accent delineates his voice from the rest. They exchange the movie’s first awkward dialogue — arguably almost every conversation in the movie is awkward — and move along.
As the film carries on, you realize not only does each character besides Stone sound the same, but everyone also has same face as well, regardless of gender or body type. Stone speaks with his wife and son over the phone to check in, and they both sound the same, his son sounding even more robotic than the rest of the characters. As a result, Stone finds himself making attempts to feel emotion again.
Following a series of rather disheartening endeavors, Stone overhears a voice from the hotel hallway. It is a distinctly high, melodic voice, different than the rest of the voices in the film. He rushes to put on his clothes and begins to knock on doors on his floor to find the owner of the mystical voice. He finally finds the voice, belonging to a woman named Lisa, who with her friend came to attend the seminar. Enamored, Stone invites the two women for drinks at the bar. Ultimately, he invites Lisa back to his room. Shocked by his offer, Lisa humbly agrees. Lisa is clumsy, admits she is not educated and is extremely self-conscious about a scar on her right eye, which she covers with strands of hair. She is confused and embarrassed by Stone’s interest in her and assumes that she is being taken advantage of. He, however, insists that he finds her beautiful and urges her to talk and sing. Lisa’s voice is quite literally music to his ears, and they eventually sleep together. After having a strange nightmare, Stone wakes up the next morning fearful that he would never find another woman like Lisa again and ventures to extend their time together. What happens next is the beginning of an unhappy denouement that is revealing of life’s truths.
Ultimately, what we see is an aged, accomplished white man, with perhaps the biggest bounty of societal privileges, who is emotionally constipated, depressed and, despite being constantly surrounded by people, alone. He is in a line of work that is centered on human connection, yet under the artificial auspices of capitalistic gain. The irony of Stone’s life, as we see through this telling snapshot, is astounding. During the movie, pangs of fear drove through my stomach as I realized that my life could be as sad as Stone’s if I were to one day be “successful” in the corporate world one day.
When leaving Amherst Cinema, I ran into a friend of mine who also watched this movie. During the walk back to campus, we bantered over how frustrated we were with the film — how the main character was a manipulative jerk who never solved his own problem, and how dark and depressing a movie starring puppets could actually be. However, after wrestling with the dark ideas “Anomalisa” brings about, I more closely understand its significance. “Anomalisa” is a movie you should watch not solely for entertainment purposes.
I urge you to also process its warning about the often sterile, monotonous cycles that are entrenched in our society’s fibers. Though the plot focuses on a mid-life crisis, it draws many parallels with many of the internal crises Amherst students battle on campus: loneliness, depression and apathy. Kaufman’s call to action is implicitly evident through the film’s abrupt ending. By introducing us to a 24-hour time-span of Michael Stone’s mundane nightmare, Kaufman is urging us all to wake up.