OK, Great: Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman’s “Anomalisa”

Kaufman’s puppet-play allows us to find grace in the despair of everyday life.

The title of Anomalisa is the result of a terrible pun derived from a too-common name and an uncommon word. It is a weird joke—and barely a joke at that. But it’s certainly fitting. Because this film resembles nothing so much as a very weird dream-version of a pretty normal day. In fact, aside from its form (surrealist puppet drama!) Anomalisa is almost radically mundane. Airports, hotels, and other lackluster environments abound. And that approach is matched by the dialogue, which provides “German sounds mean” by way of an insight, “fuck you!” repeated as one side of an argument, and “Don’t shut up, Lisa” as a romantic declaration. The puppets we encounter are also uniformly nondescript. All but two are voiced, wonderfully by one actor, Tom Noonan. And the two exceptions to this rule are our protagonist and his one-night love-interest, Lisa. All other characters look similar, sound similar, and offer vanishingly small glimpses of their humanity through little more than gestures (a tug at the sleeve, or an over-reliance on a certain word, for instance).

And yet, despite this parade of anonymous characters, dreary places, and mundane events, the film is also, to borrow Michael’s word, “miraculous.”

Anomalisa asks questions of apparent profundity—“what does it mean to be human?”—but those questions are also intentionally over-ambitious, I think, and we get no good answers. Behind those questions, though, are others, unstated but even more pressing, about how much pain one person should bear before breaking family bonds, and how much irritation one should suffer before lashing out. The pain and irritation are real here—Michael often looks truly wounded by the customer service approach he has worked to perfect—but the deeply unusual and often shocking humor also show how petty any resistance can often seem. Petty, and yet the stakes are high.

The level of praise that the film has received, along with its modest beginnings as a “sound play” and a Kickstarter project, may make it sound as though it has done something utterly original, but none of the working parts are especially new. Charlie Kaufman has of course worked with puppets before on Being John Malkovich; the stylized, stilted dialogue recalls Kubrick; and the movie shares a lot of its overall structure with the famous British romance Brief Encounter. But the thing that ties everything together and yet keeps everything in a perpetual state of tension is Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson’s combined ability to fuse dreams and life together in a way that never feels quite settled.

Anomalisa takes on some of the most legitimately awful bogeymen of the modern psyche and, by reducing them to their perhaps more proper scale, provides a thrilling account of ourselves, to ourselves.

Dreams are most dreamlike when we cannot say for certain whether or not we are dreaming but sense that something is not quite right. (Bear with me.) Synechdoche, New York, Kaufman’s first directorial feature, operated within that uncertain mode for its duration, and although it was impressive, it had a bleakness—and a kind of abstraction, an obsession with its own meta-content—that tended to push viewers away rather than draw them in. Anomalisa, however, takes on some of the most legitimately awful bogeymen of the modern psyche—conformity, mediocrity, inauthenticity, and despair—and, by reducing them to their perhaps more proper scale, provides a thrilling account of ourselves, to ourselves… as tiny, largely anonymous puppets.

The puppets that populate the film are critical to the overall experience of this world as both a visceral reality (a thrilling drabness!) and a metaphor. As in Synechdoche (and elsewhere), reality is at a remove here, but these puppets are so convincing that if anything they feel more human than us. And that experience of the real article trumped by the imitation is something that is echoed time and again in the film. Soon after Michael and Lisa go back to Michael’s room, Lisa succumbs to Michael’s passion and agrees to sing a song for him: Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” She sings it badly and she goes on too long, but it is, without a doubt, a great cover. It allows us to hear the song anew.

In an interview with Film Comment, Kaufman explained that they were unable to secure the rights for Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” and so instead had to resort to the Lauper song. It doesn’t really matter though. In fact, it’s almost the point. Our stories are derivations of past stories, our songs derivations of past songs, and we are not as unique as we would like to think.

An honest accounting of that fact may sound like sober math, but it doesn’t feel that way here. These puppets don’t look much like Pinocchio, but they bear his traces. They are made of wood but they are not wooden. And although they may tug at their sleeves rather than grow their noses, we can’t help but see the truth, especially when they lie. FL

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