ANOMALISA directed by Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson (USA, 2015)
“I don’t want to live my life like everybody else,
And I don’t want to say that I feel fine like everybody else,
‘Cause I’n not like everybody else”
These lyrics by Ray Davies in The Kinks’ song ‘I’m Not Like Everybody Life’ serves as a neat summation of the central theme in Charlie Kaufman’s latest ‘mindfuck’ movie.
An ‘anomaly’ is defined by Macmillan Dictionary as “something unusual, unexpected or different from what usually happens”. As an animated feature for adults, including an explicit and realistic stop motion sex scene, this film is certainly an anomaly but it is also consistent with Kaufman’s previous work in that it is less concerned with external reality and more focused on what goes on inside our heads.
The main character is Michael, a successful but disillusioned customer services expert who is in demand as a motivational speaker but is finding it increasingly difficult to motivate himself. Life has become a series bland, boring routines and the death of the soul cannot be revived by monetary success.
He is desperate to reach out and make a real connection with someone else but everyone he knows and meets seem part of the problem rather than the cure. He singles out Lisa as a possible exception partly because she has more evident personality and physical flaws. The scar on her face and her social ineptitude make her appear vulnerable and thus more human.
Yet, this is no feel good love story. After the novelty has worn off, Michael soon begins to find fault with Lisa as he does with everyone else. In The Doors’ ‘People Are Strange’, Jim Morrison hit the nail on the head when he wrote the line “People look ugly when you’re alone”. Michael is isolated and lonely not because the people he encounters are more hateful than usual but because he doesn’t truly know who he is and what he wants.
His life has become a loop he can’t see any way out of. This could be categorized as a conventional mid-life crisis but, more scarily, it could be classified as a life crisis. The implication is that his slow descent into a numb despair is an integral part of the human psyche. The fact that puppets replace real people only emphasizes the humanity.
A clue to his state of mind lies in the fact that he is staying in the Fregol Hotel . Fregol is the name of a rare paranoid condition in which the sufferer believes everyone he encounters is the same person in a series of disguises.
In the movie this distorted psychological state is represented by the fact everyone looks and sounds the same. Apart from Michael and Lisa (‘played’ by Michael Thewlis and Jennifer Jason leigh), all the male and female characters are all voiced by Tom Noonan. This is initially confusing and then, when you realize what is happening, it adds to the living nightmare scenario.
In his keynote address at the conference he is attending in Cincinnati, Michael recommends treating each customer as unique but knows that human behavior can be manipulated so easily because peoples habits and needs are entirely predicable. In other words, customers can be flattered into believing they are special but it is their sameness that makes them so gullible.
Ultimately, this film is asking us to consider is what, if anything, really makes us unlike everybody else? It raises the sobering notion that the notion of individuality is often delusional. We are more like everybody else than we like to think.