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A Note on Anomalisa

David Anomalisa

For Charlie Kaufman, with each passing film he has continued to deconstruct what we typically expect from a standard narrative, acknowledging there are no rules to how you can write or tell a story. Basically, rules are written by people trying to sell you books on screenwriting.

Anomalisa is his latest film, a “funny-ish” drama that continues Kaufman’s career of defying expectations. Originally an audio play the script found it’s way to the Duke Johnson and Starburns Industries, the studio responsible for Rick and Morty and Before Orel. This was serendipitous as a beautiful union was formed. The script calls for three actors. You have David, our main character voiced by David Thewlis, who is feeling alone in the world. He is on the road promoting his book and giving a speech on how to improve customer service. We are getting a small 24-hour glimpse into his life as he visits Cleveland, a city with a wonderful zoo sized zoo. It takes a minute to let everything register but the audience soon comes to realize everyone David interacts with has what we can call “World Face” and “World Voice.” Everyone looks the same. And they are all voiced by the great Tom Noonan (who you hopefully remember from his fantastic role in Kaufman’s opus and certified mind-f#@!, Synecdoche, New York). This world is, to say the very least, dull. We witness the most boring, mundane details of his night from the cab ride from the airport, the hotel check-in and then ordering room serviDesks anomalisace.

It’s not a subtle point being made. I’m sure many of you have felt it, the world can seem to lack real human interaction; it can lack depth. People have perfectly packaged platitudes they feel comfortable serving up for every situation. It can all start to blend together to the point where you aren’t hearing any distinct voice in the crowd.

David’s loneliness leads him to call a former lover, recalling I suspect that she was one of the unique ones. She had that distinct voice, a face to remember. She arrives for a drink in the hotel bar and she is part of the world voice, world face. What’s changed, I wonder. Is his memory that unreliable? Just romanticizing the past and building her into something she never was? Perhaps she has changed or maybe the problem is his perception of the world has changed. Needless to say it ends poorly, they cannot reconcile with their past and David returns alone to his room. And then, a voice! It’s new, it’s fresh, it is so distinct he rushes to get dressed and starts knocking on doors to find this woman with her siren song. It is Lisa; the anomaly in his world. His ‘anomalisa,’ voiced by actor number 3 in this film, Jennifer Jason Leigh.anomalisa-still2

The film is beautifully shot with naturalistic lighting and style. And performances are almost lyrical in their melancholy. The animation is brilliant, with incredibly expressive eyes on David and Lisa. And the sex scene they were able to pull off had more truth and honesty than any sex scene you’ll witness with live actors. It was awkward, slightly clumsy and sort of, real.

This is the sort of film that is wonderful to discuss after the fact and as you reflect on the themes, the style, the performances. It’s very cerebral. But the viewing experience itself was a little underwhelming. Maybe that was the point being made, which works but certainly doesn’t hold the attention of most audiences for very long. There is not much in the film to respond to viscerally, at least not until you get more than half way through.

ANOMALISAIn the end, this script doesn’t offer much hope. One could argue it is nihilistic in a way, suggesting that all anomalies, as hopeful as they may be, are doomed. Individuality seems to be fleeting. Upon reflection the film is profound with emotional depth and I’m probably going to watch it a few times more. It’s a complex and intelligent script that I’m sure will be on top ten lists this year. But general audiences should be cautious. While I loved experiencing different moments, at times I grew restless and most of my enjoyment came hours after the final credits as I was ruminating over the experience.

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