The Face of Another
By Nick Pinkerton
Dir. Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, U.S., Paramount
Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s Anomalisa is a painstakingly constructed rendering of a strikingly simple story. It depicts the events that occur around a speaking engagement in Cincinnati by British-born customer service guru Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), mostly confined to the downtown hotel in which he is staying, but it does this through the use of stop-motion puppetry, homely human figures who might almost pass for photorealistic if not for the seams that pass across the bridge of their noses and continue from the corners of their doll eyes. These little figures look at times like brittle confections—or pincushions. The evident work that went into rendering the details of every banal gesture complements the material, for crabbed Michael is a man for whom every piece of common courtesy is an agonizing chore. Gags are constructed with a minute attention to detail that might be called Tati-esque, though you have to imagine Monsieur Hulot as a foul-tempered prick. Watching Michael negotiate around the sharp corners of his circumscribed world brings to mind a phrase from Strindberg’s Inferno: “All that I touch hurts.”
Michael’s perpetual discomfort is evident from the moment that his plane lands, as he grudgingly keeps up his half of the conversation through gritted teeth with a chatty cabbie proffering unsolicited advice on what to do in Cincinnati, including the “world-class” zoo and the mutant indigenous strain of chili. As one who spent his formative years in the city, I can affirm that these touches of local color are more or less accurate, though there aren’t any pandas at the zoo, and the skyline visible through the window of Michael’s tenth floor suite at the Fregoli Hotel resembles nothing in the Queen City. Kaufman arbitrarily chose the location because he, per one interview, “wanted someplace in the middle of the country,” and the name rolls off the tongue with more pleasure than, say, “St. Louis” or “Columbus.” In point of fact, for all that Michael takes notice of his surroundings, it makes very little difference where he is. One luxury hotel blends into another on the lecture circuit, much as everyone he encounters has a more-or-less interchangeable face and speaks with the same voice, provided by Tom Noonan. This includes Michael’s wife and child back home in Los Angeles, whom he obligingly talks to over the phone once settled into his room, his delicately manipulated features registering a hundred different shades of pained forbearance as he does. (Like much in the early part of the film, this scene is seen in a sustained wide master shot of the diorama-like suite, emphasizing Michael’s entrapment.) Given this glimpse of domestic misery, we might assume that any escape would be welcome, but travel is hardly a relief. Wherever Michael goes, he’s still inhabiting the cramped confines of his own mind.
Until, that is, he sees a chink of light at the end of the dreary tunnel that is his life. Michael has a disastrous meet-up with an ex-girlfriend (we know from an angry letter reread on the plane that he’d abandoned her without explanation ten years prior—for those keeping track, this places the setting of the action in 2005) and returns half-pissed to his room and mini-bar. Suddenly, he hears an unfamiliar voice outside, and races into the hall to find its source. After a frantic search, he locates Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a call center employee at a baked goods distributor in Akron who has splurged on a trip with a friend down the interstate to see the great Michael Stone speak.
Michael clings to Lisa’s voice, lone evidence of the exceptional in a deluge of banality with the desperation of a drowning man, and Lisa is flattered and a little baffled at his attention, particularly when he asks her back to his room. Like his erstwhile collaborator Spike Jonze, whose last two treacly films have been built around voiceover performances pitched to headphones intimacy, Kaufman is unusually interested in exploring the contours of his performer’s speech—Anomalisa in fact originated as a voice-and-music “sound play” written by Kaufman at the behest of the film’s composer, Carter Burwell, and opened by the Theater of the New Ear ten years ago. The casting is impeccable, drawing on the particulars of the performers’ voices and their histories. Noonan is employed for the slightly menacing neutrality of his tone, while Leigh recalls a legacy of not-so-bright, ill-used, and irrepressibly human dames, Susie Waggoner in Miami Blues or Blondie in Kansas City—what her Lisa says is often trite, but the way in which she says it never is. Thewlis, for his part, is some bizarro version of lost, splenetic Johnny in Mike Leigh’s Naked, now dulled and domesticated with Zoloft and wearing dumpy khakis. Mostly he remains either curt or whisperingly wistful, though in a moment of climactic denuding he unfurls his Northern burr to magnificent effect. “I’ve lost my love,” announces Michael, “She’s an unmoored ship drifting off to sea and I have no-one to talk to, I have no-one to talk to, I have no-one to talk to”— the musical repetition suggests a bleak twist on Van Morrison’s “love that loves to love” litany in “Madame George.”
Leigh and Thewlis’s boudoir duet is equal parts sweet and creepy, as Michael is almost oppressively magnanimous in his engrossment—he asks Lisa if he can kiss the scar on her temple that she scrupulously keeps hidden underneath her bangs, and insists on giving her head despite her embarrassed protestations. She stays with it, in part because she’s flattered by the attentions of this great man with his exotic accent and his splendid vocabulary. Reading his book, she tells him, she learned the word “anomaly,” and he makes her a gift of a portmanteau wordplay that’s the film’s title—and of course is actually the work of the author of the phrase “Meet me in Montauk” in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the tongue-twister title Synecdoche, New York.
Michael and Lisa’s moment of tender, booze-lubricated connection is short-lived, however, and the edifice of fantasy built up in a night melts away with the morning light. Any reader of Sentimental Education or Stendhal will recognize the depiction of disillusion following on the heels of unrealistic romantic expectation, while Michael’s turn-on-a-dime switch from solicitude to aggravation evokes Naked, and also fits right in with Kaufman’s worldview—this is the same man who, in Eternal Sunshine, suggested voluntary amnesia as a means for renewing romantic love. The apparent oasis in Michael’s emotional desert is but a mirage of self-delusion, and the film leaves him trudging off to an inevitable crack-up, which seems imminent as he takes the podium in front of another audience of credulous dupes, breaking from his prepared comments to splutter about the Iraq War.
Right or wrong, Michael’s political protest has no grounding in human concern, just as his disillusion with Lisa has as little to do with her as his evening-long infatuation did—what seemed a moment of true commiseration now appears as yearning fastened to any port in a storm. The “moment” that Michael and Lisa share is, in truth, larded with hackneyed expressions, but Kaufman’s coup-de-theatre emphasizes the manner in which mundane sentiments can be suddenly elevated by the individual imprint of vocal expression, a piece of alchemy that turns cliché into truth. Michael, however, is repulsed by his success as a seducer, as he is repulsed by sycophancy and the niceties of “small talk.” “Remember to smile,” Michael advises the audience at his seminar. “It costs you nothing”—but it’s obvious that his job has cost him a great deal indeed. In studying how to handle people, to “push their buttons,” Michael has begun to see them as literally mechanical, as automatons, a point underlined not only by the film’s stop-motion conceit but also by the appearance of an antique Japanese geisha doll that Michael buys at a 24-hour smut shop on his sole trip outside of the hotel, a purchase that later provides a nasty, oozing punchline.
Michael traffics in emotional manipulation, much as a filmmaker and dramatist oftentimes will, and Kaufman, whose career may be viewed as an ongoing protest against shopworn narrative formulae, gives the viewer every opportunity to interpret his protagonist as a surrogate for the self-reproachful author, the storyteller who mistrusts stories. There is of course an entire “other” cinematic tradition that rejects those formulas entirely without even making reference to them, but films without traditionally satisfying resolutions tend to be addressed to a niche demographic; it is part of Kaufman’s particular paradox that throughout his career he has shown every evidence of wanting to address as wide an audience as possible, if only to berate them for their gullibility. (It is significant that his first writing gigs were for the Fox network’s perverse, brilliant “anti-sitcom” Get a Life.) The idea of “universality,” the assumption behind pop-culture triangulation and mass media utopianism, is something that Michael and Kaufman view with mixed awe and horror; Michael is touched one moment by the way that Lisa sees her better self in the lyrics of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” disgusted by the banality of the sentiment in another.
It is tempting to say that the hypocrite salesman is a figure who has come up for quite enough skewering in sophisto cinema, though it’s made palatable by the fact that Kaufman hasn’t spared his own vocation, and his own hypocrisy. Michael’s lecturing on the mechanics of relatability has its direct analog in the Kaufman-written, Jonze-directed Adaptation, in which self-loathing, emotionally constipated writer “Charlie Kaufman” (Nicolas Cage), attending a seminar by screenwriting sage Robert McKee (Brian Cox), asks “What if a writer is attempting to create a story where nothing much happens, where people don’t change, they don’t have any epiphanies, they struggle and are frustrated and nothing is resolved? More a reflection of the real world.” While more a lucid replication than a reflection, Anomalisa is very much a Charlie Kaufman film in this vein, ending as Michael rebuffs his wife’s fears that he will leave the family home: “Where would I go?” The assiduousness inherent in the means of the film’s frame-by-frame production suggests the infinity of variegated details that exist beneath the stale surface that Michael takes to be the real world, his loss of love ultimately a loss of curiosity—and this, at least, he doesn’t share with his creator. Anomalisa is a fine, poetic, suggestive title, though “Anhedonia” might have done just as well.