It’s genuinely a little hard to write a review of Anomalisa, which is a good – maybe great – film that I didn’t enjoy very much, almost by design. It’s a heartbreaking film, a study in loneliness and isolation, and one that manages to both convey something deeply meaningful about the human experience and leave you wrung out on the other end, all without ever really resorting to big, dramatic moments.
And it’s all done with stop-motion animated puppets, for reasons that will become clear.
Indeed, one of the main things that interested me about Anomalisa was the fact that it’s written by Charlie Kaufman, the brilliant screenwriter behind films like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and Synecdoche, New York. Kaufman’s scripts and worlds are unlike anything else out there; they break the rules of what we assume, turn worlds inward on themselves, and are willing to push us far beyond the “usual” in an effort to get at something bigger. And much the same can be said for Anomalisa, which takes a deceptively simple premise – a man on a business trip meets a young woman, and they start up a relationship – and does something wholly unique with it.
I don’t really want to say what that “something” is; suffice to say, it’ll slowly dawn on you as the film progresses, and only gradually will you really understand just what Kaufman is doing. (I promise, I’m not being coy; the film is really best experienced blank, so you can have that moment of slow realization.) By about 15 minutes in, a few different things had started to click together, and I began to see why this film had to be done in stop-motion animation, what Kaufman’s central thesis was, and just how it added to the story. And the effect, I have to say, is wonderful. It takes a simple metaphor and makes it quite literal, driving home the sense of isolation and boredom that can trap so many of us in our lives, as well as reminding us what happens when we meet someone that breaks up that pattern. It’s a simple idea (though the execution must have been maddeningly complex), but it pays off beautifully.
And yet, for all of that metaphorical richness, much of Anomalisa is about a relationship between two damaged people, each of whom are isolated, lonely, and desperate for any kind of connection. It’s genuinely sweet and affecting, and undeniably intimate, but there comes a point about halfway through Anomalisa when you realize that, for lack of a better term, this is all there is to the film. It’s a simple love story with an interesting idea behind it, and while it’s well-executed, you can’t help but feel a little disappointed at first. This is what Charlie Kaufman is doing here? Something this simple?
And yet, for all of that initial disappointment, I can’t deny that Anomalisa has lingered with me more than I expected. Its simplicity doesn’t detract from its power or effectiveness; its muted style doesn’t make its occasional flights of weird fancy any less entertaining(ly weird and funny); its lack of big ambition doesn’t make its intimate story any less touching or moving. There’s a pull quote on the poster for the film that declares it “the most human film of the year,” and that’s not far off. Anomalisa manages to convey a truly human feeling better than almost anything else I saw this year, and although it makes for a quietly devastating experience, I think there’s something truly great in it as well.
So, if Anomalisa is so great, why can’t I bring myself to love it? I honestly don’t know for sure. On an intellectual level, and even on an emotional level as I think back, I think it’s a phenomenal piece of work. It’s beautifully crafted, and the attention to detail continues to wow you as you began to understand the scope of what Kaufman has achieved here. And yet, the low-key nature of the film, I think, works against it slightly. There’s never a sense of greatness here, never a sense of something truly magical; it’s always a quiet, simple little tale that does exactly what it sets out to. It’s a film, though, that I think might grow in my estimation in hindsight, as I let it simmer in my thoughts. It’s something quite remarkable, and something that I can’t quite stop thinking about, even nearly a week after I saw it. And that, as much as anything, says something about its power.