‘Anomalisa’ – a review


Actor David Thewlis voices Michael Stone as he engages in puppet showering, puppet profanity, puppet nudity and puppet hallucinations.

Puppetry without the strings

The films of Charlie Kaufman have you leaving a darkened auditorium into the night air unsure of exactly what is was you watched for almost two hours, yet knowing  you were not patronised or hoodwinked and he made you smile and chuckle. You saw intelligence, but what did it amount to? Identity, conflict, mortality?

Kaufman appears to be interested in the soul, how it functions, what makes it sin and what makes it sigh. There’s definitely the frustrated psychoanalyst in him. It’s no surprise Kaufman admires Kafka, Beckett, and David Lynch.

He sees us as we are—beautiful, inspirational, boastful, hopeful, lonely, often very  dull. He seems to think The Self is a delusion. We are not what we think we are, most certainly not how others see us.

“O wad some Power the giftie gie us, to see oursels as ithers see us!”

Though thoroughly Jewish, there’s something of the priest in Kaufman, a man outside looking in, ever so slightly aloof from his community yet fascinated by it. The characters he conjures are multi-layered, complex, though somehow never in control of their destiny, which I suppose pretty well sums up life for most of us.

His leitmotif runs through all of his work. Off the top of my head, (there’s a Kaufman reference, right there) I can think of the strangeness of Being John Malkovich, memory-wiped travellers in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and actors moving around in someone else’s play, Synecdoche, New York.

I enjoyed Adaptation but never gave it the weight others awarded it because I found its exaggerations – a screenplay writer suffering serious writer’s block – too much to accept. Nevertheless, Kaufman is garlanded with movie awards, often cited as one of the ten best screenwriters of this century. I’d debate that one. He’s courageous, certainly talented, and undoubtedly an original in conception, but the very best? And of what genre?

It’s a living 

Kaufman cut his teeth sending sketches to studios for comedy movies, most rejected, before graduating to jokes and sketches for television comedies. By that period he had hooked up with a film classmate, Paul Proch, and they worked together. They kept at it, as you must, until one day it paid dividends.

His big break was Malkovitch (1999) directed by Spike Jonze. It earned him an Academy Award nomination and won him a BAFTA. A speculative script, it got rejected more times than it had full stops. It eventually reached Francis Ford Coppola, a man with a practiced eye for winners. He passed it to his then-son-in-law Jonze, who agreed to direct the film.


The infinite boredom of an office existence

A film all about detail

Kaufman’s movie characters get more and more lost in the fug of their own making, unreal realities, layered realities, until they themselves, their very existence, seems unreal. In Anomalisa, he goes to the extreme by literally making them puppets.

If the story was enacted by real actors folk would leave the cinema. With puppets it holds our attention for its full ninety minutes. We’re amused by what we see puppets doing in the same way parrots have us laughing when they mimic us.

Anomalisa‘s stop-motion figurines look very life-like. The have paunches, hair loss, look middle-aged, act middle-aged, and have droopy genitalia. Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson animate facial features expertly. Lip synch is smooth, not the teeth bashing clatter of wooden puppets, or the approximation of speech in other plasticine animations.

Then he does something odd – faces are mask-like. A crack runs across the bridge of the puppets’ noses, under eyes and over brows making features look like a mask. I’m unsure what Kaufman means by that other than what we see isn’t real, not even our facial characteristics. We present a mask. We see a mask.

When the film’s protagonist, Michael Stone, (there’s meaning in the name ‘Stone’) attempts to pull his face apart, exposing the mechanics bits he shares with everyone else, he screams.

The early scenes of travel are full of apathy and indifference. The stop motion minutiae is perfect in detail –  a pictographic phone that confuses as to which button orders food. Life is full of these infinitesimally small annoyances that cause stress and anxiety.


The stop-go animation took three years to complete

What’s the film’s story? 

Essentially, it’s an extended seduction scene, followed by a nightmare, followed by absolution. The man, Michael Stone, is on a lecture tour for his book about customer service. He’s a cold, indifferent person. But he’s also scared of his remoteness, his inability to connect,  a personal contradiction since his book is all about staff ‘connecting’ with customer. He knows he’s boring, and he finds everything around him boring.

The plot is modest, banal even: a boring businessman, a motivational speaker without much motivation, Stone, calls up an old flame and meets her for a drink in his one-night hotel. (How many times does that happen in a night the world over?) They have a chat, get angry, and go their separate ways. The hotel is a world within a world.

Later he chances on two besotted fans in a room down the corridor, there to attend his lecture next day. They have read his book. He’s flattered. Lonely, he invites them for drinks at the bar. He gets fixated on one, they drink too much, and Lisa, she of the title, goes back to his room for some steamy sex. That scene is a mixture of gentle comedy and deep sadness. The sex is graphic, probably the reason the film has attracted a 15 rating.

Hotel life

Our protagonist experiences all we do when new to a large hotel: we avert our eyes from too prying reception staff, sigh at anonymous paintings on walls, wonder at the cost of massive flower displays changed daily, deal with half-smiling hotel staff, share embarrassing rides in elevators, sneer at the over-patterned carpets, walk miles of narrow corridors a thousand doors off and one cleaning cupboard, get annoyed by wonky key cards, and confused by drawn-out room service orders. Kaufman creates a claustrophobic world we recognise. The detail is amazing. He makes boredom entertaining to watch.

Stone speaks with a British accent, played by David Thewlis. The actor Tom Noonan plays every other character, male and female, except the Lisa of Stone’s lust. That role is given to Jennifer Jason Leigh, an actress  once upon a time constricted by mannerisms, but here mature, subtle, and very vulnerable.

A work of high ability

Some critical quarters claim the film is a work of genius. That’s a hard one to justify considering the location and incidents are commonplace.

With all Kaufman’s work I get the feeling I’m watching a Jewish guy kvetching. To a practical Scot like me, that trait errs on the narcissistic side. But the film in script, pace, and forthrightness is flawless. That makes it a work of high intelligence. But is it drama?

Well, the sound effects are riveting, sounds you’ve not been conscious of in other films.  The landscape is familiar and that too holds your attention. But drama?

The film is a mixture of beguiling poignancy, emotional honesty, a funny-sad study of melancholy and wasted love. Kaufman show us an element of our own fragility and wonders if we can truly love anybody other than ourselves.

“Always remember the customer is an individual just like you,” reads Michael to a convention hall of Ohio businessmen. He sighs, “Sometimes there’s no lesson. That’s a lesson in itself.”

Kaufman has spent his career trying to explore human behaviour. Is he a good tour guide? Only the cinemagoer able to analyse Self can answer that one.

  • Star rating: Four stars
  • Writer: Charlie Kaufman
  • Directors: Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson
  • Duration: 90 minutes
  • 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?


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4 Responses to ‘Anomalisa’ – a review

  1. Ken says:

    Where’s the Bank details to donate. Do you want to play with the big operators or not. Enjoyed your speil. ‘Spotless mind’ was a bit weird. Last movie viewed had Reeves shooting up some Russian gangsters because they killed his dog. The dog had been a gift from his dead wife.

    A really good performance recently in the cinema was the ‘Hangman’ screened from the ‘National Theatre’ London. That was a laugh. Morrisey was in it. The cinema is a great place to escape. The dog in the night’ was brilliant.

    Music is a joy. Without the celebrity nonsense. Beauty and the beast, Jerry and Murdoch. Few folk saw that coming. The criminal seeks respectability. The Non Dom dynasty. Like Jackie O and Onassis. Or who wants to be a trillionaire.

  2. Grouse Beater says:

    Kaufman’s latest film is far more accessible than his previous abstractions. At first the detail it shows has you wonder if you’re in for a boring ninety minutes of nothingness, but then you begin to understand the detail IS the entertainment.

    (Not seen ‘Hangman’. Might have missed it if it was shown in my local art house cinemas.)

    No need to remind me more of donation proposals. It’s not a matter of money, more pressure of commitments made on my personal time. To move to a bigger output requires a different set of objectives. I earn a living by my commercial writing, journalism, books and scripts, and art administration work. In between all that, and domestic chores, I can just about manage a couple of decent essays a week, and twitter while on the move.

    To be candid, I wish the SNP had utilised my skills to advantage rather than send me plaudits for a well written essay. (They’ve not exactly embraced Wings either, and it’s a powerhouse of daily analysis!) I’ve noticed they tend not to utilise expertise under their nose, but rather think only in terms of shoe bashing for letterbox deliveries and stall supervision. That’s a waste of skill. I did all that in the early days of the Referendum. Pointless and rather insulting asking a painter to decorate a stall. So, I invented my own skilled contribution.

  3. Ken says:

    Stop moaning and get the a/c no up and stop blaming the SNP. SNP members love Wings. The Hierarchy is a question of impartialicallity (If that is a word?) because people voted NO.

    Going to see ‘Amonalisa’. Forgot which film it was being reviewed

    Still reading through William McIlvanney’s catalogue. Can’t give them to the library. Nearly seen him in a Hotel in Glasgow but missed the opportunity because of certain circumstance.

  4. Grouse Beater says:

    One more mention of the a/c gets you zapped in the badoolas!

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