Thoughts (Not a Review) of Anomalisa

anomalisaSince viewing it in January, I have struggled with the best way to share my thoughts on 2015 Oscar nominee Anomalisa.  Mainly how could I post a review of a film that I skipped large portions of for content reasons?  Finally, I just decided to post my thoughts rather than a review.  I think I saw enough of Anomalisa to give an opinion on the style and overall production, but can’t in good conscience give a traditional review.

Anomalisa was the brainchild of director Charlie Kaufman.  He originally wrote it as a ‘sound play’, which I must confess I had never heard of before researching this film.  I didn’t know people went to plays just to hear dialogue?  Cool.

So, eventually Kaufman decided to put up a kickstarter for an Anomalisa short and the decision was made to use puppets and change it to feature length film.  The puppets were made using 3D printers and 18 Michaels and 6 Lisas were designed.  There are only 3 vocal performances in Anomalisa- Michael (David Thewlis), Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Everyone else (Tom Noonan).

anomalisa4According to Kaufman the goal of the film was to “forget they were looking at something animated and just get wrapped up in the scene,” further explaining that “the challenge we felt with so much animated stuff is that you’re always conscious of the animation, and we kept asking, ‘What if we could escape that? What would it be like?”

After viewing the film several times I would say they achieved their goals.  The animation in Anomalisa is gorgeous.  I’m a huge stop motion junkie and to see the fluidity and expressions of the characters is remarkable.  Also it has this unique mix of artistry and realism that I haven’t seen before.  Like there are times when you forget you are watching stop motion but then the lines around the characters faces remind you.  So at one moment you are both immersed in the world and reminded it is art.  I don’t know if that makes sense but there is definitely that dichotomy in the art design.

anomalisa9The main story behind Anomalisa is it’s about a man named Michael who is traveling to Cincinnati to deliver a speech on his book on customer service.  To Michael everyone appears, even sounds the same.  The world has become streamlined and boring and he has lost hope in anything but a robot-like existence.

anomalisa8He ends up making his way to his hotel, briefly having dinner with an old flame and then meeting a woman named Lisa who has come to hear him speak.  She fascinates Michael because of a scar on her face and something different in her demeanor and personality. As they get to know each other better he refers to her as Anomalisa (an anomaly named Lisa).  They become more intimate and then the story plays out more or less how you might predict.

anomalisa3So, let’s address the elephant in the room.  As someone who doesn’t usually watch a lot of rated R content, there was a lot in Anomalisa I had to skip over.  That is why I didn’t feel I could give it a true ‘review’. I skipped at least 20 minutes of the film.  The sensuality and language in Anomalisa is extremely strong.  Even with skipping I was still shocked at how R rated it truly is.

I actually think this is more than just a moral problem with the film.  The first 2/3rd you have interesting character development and then the final act with all the sexuality becomes kind of expected and one note.  I wonder if being sexually daring may have created a distraction on the core story and message? Needless to say, I didn’t feel I missed anything by skipping over it and if that’s the case was it really that important?

anomalisa7Charlie Kaufman’s messaging in Anomalisa is a pretty cynical one and definitely won’t be for everyone.  Michael loves Lisa because she is different, an anomaly; however, when they eat breakfast together her mannerisms start to drive him crazy.  He then starts to see her as everyone else and has a kind of manic episode while delivering his speech.  Kaufman seems to be asking ‘are we all the same’ and if we are- what’s the point in living in all that sameness?

anomalisa2I’m not really sure Kaufman has an answer, which is very depressing.  Maybe it’s just to have sensual experiences or to hope to find an actual anomalisa one day? That if we keep trying we will find something unique?  Like I said, it’s a pretty cynical message.

That said, I do relate to the message in a certain way.  When I was unhappy in my work the world did feel the same- just rows of cubicles and repetitive acts with no meaning or love attached to them.  I was miserable and it’s hard to be hopeful when mundanity  has taken over your life.  I know I would rather do anything than work at desk with a cubicle like the scores of Lisas do in Michael’s dream.

anomalisa19There’s even a philosophic concept behind Kaufman’s visuals.  It has to do with the reality of ‘the other’. When we meet another human being we are immediately struck by their sense of being or their humanity.  Then we, in an attempt to order what’s around us, turn them into the same.  So, a person is human but then they are a more of the same- a woman, an ethnicity, age, race, religion etc.  We all do it. It’s human nature.

Once someone is the same they can be treated differently than when they are a unique being.  We can see that in Michael’s treatment of Lisa.  When she is an anomaly she is prized but as soon as she is the same he is done with her.

anomalisa12I guess where I wonder about Kaufman’s cynicism is can you really know someone’s sameness or uniqueness from one night of sex? Most of what Michael is depressed over comes from kind of superficial observations and even with Lisa he really doesn’t get to know her very well before judging  her as both an angel and then a bland bore. But then again, that’s kind of what happens when we are depressed so maybe that’s what Kaufman is trying to show?

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

It’s another reason I think the sensuality becomes a distraction in the last third of the story.  I really wanted to find out more of why Michael is so cynical and depressed.  I mean we’ve seen the morose suburbanite contemplating sameness so many times (American Beauty, Birdman…) that aside from the stop motion I’m not sure what is so new about Kaufman’s insight here?

Even his wife’s attempt to throw a surprise party is seen as more of the same to Michael.  What could make him happy?  Evidently it is finding more Anomalisa’s but since the Anomalisa was a disappointment it seems a hopeless endeavor?  I don’t think Michael will ever find what he is looking for, which is very depressing.

anomalisa5My final thoughts on Anomalisa is it is striking and beautiful in many ways.   I like the core idea of examining sameness and the other but it’s not exactly new to cinema. Sure the animation is different and the adult content shocking, but Kaufman is so relentlessly cynical it becomes frustrating.  In many ways the cynical answer is kind of easy where a more hopeful one takes work and a more complex view of human beings.

I wish instead of spending the final third act shocking the audience with sexual content Kaufman had explored some kind of solution for Michael.  I’m not saying he has to be happy and everything be solved but maybe a more complicated answer than we are all robots and there is no hope would be more thought provoking?

But that said, I do appreciate the artistry and ambition of Anomalisa.  It’s definitely something that will make you think about your own life and if you are an Anomalisa or just like everyone else. (Also are you judgemental like Michael and TURN everyone into the same when they are actually unique?). I appreciate the questions the film asks and the way it is animated.  I think the third act gets distracted with the adult content but as I skipped over some of those segments there may be insight I missed.

No grade from me for Anomalisa, as this is not a review, but I hope that insight was helpful.  Make sure you know this is a strong R rated film and definitely not for everyone.  Even skipping the sexual content, there is a lot of profanity and vulgarity, so be forewarned.

So what did you think of Anomalisa?  I will definitely be curious for your thoughts on this one!

11 thoughts on “Thoughts (Not a Review) of Anomalisa

  1. I hope to see it one day, but it would have to be by myself as my wife would have no interest in watching it. I was wondering how you’d make it through, and I’m glad you were able to watch enough to feel like you got the full experience without having to see things you’re uncomfortable with. I’ve long had a love-hate relationship with Kaufman who has made some of my favorite movies and others which I can’t stand. I love stop-motion, and I’m very interested in seeing how a medium which is typically used for fantastical stories translates when depicting the more mundane aspects of life. If I ever get around to seeing it I’ll come back and give you my thoughts, or post a review of my own. In the mean time, thanks for watching it and giving us a deeper look at it!

    1. You’re welcome. I’m glad you appreciated it even with my more limited perspective. I didnt know if people would think that was lame but seemed like a good compromise.
      I watched it on a site called This is how I was able to skip around.
      This was actually my first Kaufman film but I can see what you mean. He is definitely a gifted artist. I just think he kind of took the easy way out by going sexual for so long instead of exploring character growth more. But I respect the very good things he did and will be curious for your thoughts if you see it.

  2. Fantastic thoughts. I did a review of it myself too but you pointed out alot of other things that made me ponder. I felt the same way about the film too, I felt Kaufman could have just picked a more definite resolution, in fact any resolution would do (but with conviction)…the movie would have been better. Still, Kaufman probably wanted to have a sort of ‘life in motion’ movie, and since its just a few nights stay at the Fhegouli, it’s also realistic that there isn’t a catharsis at the end of such a small time frame. I loved it so much though, and I rate it better than Inside Out by just a teeny weeny bit.

    1. How did you feel about the cynicism? Do you think Michael will ever find his Anomalisa?
      I can see this being a favorite. It’s certainly beautiful and a lot of the commentary I enjoyed. I just think it loses its way in the last third.

  3. I liked it but did not like the lines over the character’s faces. Once it is revealed why they have them I hated that more. The sexual content did not bother me, in fact I applauded that it wasn’t approached like some rauchy Judd Appatow film but rather in an adult way. I don’t find that “shocking”. Sexuality is part of life, it’s also how life is created. There are various ways in portraying that. There are more animated films that contain not only mere violence but death. That is morally rejectable, more than sexuality. The voice over performances by Jennifer Jason Leigh as the titular character and David Thewlis as the protagonist are among the best done by established actors in any animated films recently. I did find the whole robotic/Terry Gilliam part of the film the least interesting . The film isn’t preachy and like real life inconclusive. As a whole; a worthy effort that is certainly much more interesting than more than half the animated compost that is being sold to the public.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I can handle some sensuality but I have limits with my faith and beliefs with what I watch. We will have to agree to disagree on that. The lines didnt bother me but I feel it worked better as an expose on modern work than relationship. The sexuality was kind of distracting from the more interesting conversation and events of the film. But still a unique effort I’m glad was made and honored

      1. I do feel the sex was like typical film cliché, rushed. Although not outside the realm of possibility, but in certain ways very typical for a film to do that. I liked how it worked in Lost In Translation, that you never had the characters in from the hotel do that. This film in that regards is like Lost In Translation but set in the US and with both characters having to get in the act.

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