Being Michael Stone
by ALEX CARNEVALE
dir. Charle Kaufman & Duke Johnson
Michael Stone (David Thewlis) is the sort of asshole who smokes indoors. He is addicted to nicotine, which he consumes every hour or so, as well as alcohol, which he introduces into his system every night. He is completely unsympathetic in every single way, which makes him the perfect Charlie Kaufman protagonist. Kaufman has made a career of finding imaginary humans with no real positive qualities and twisting their lives into something redemptive.
Aesthetically, Anomalisa is an animation triumph. Every scene is gorgeously lit and manufactured, with a bevy of details that are barely ever approximated by reality. In his depiction of a nice hotel in Cincinnati, Kaufman revels in the weird silences and moments that are almost never represented in any medium.
Michael meets up with an old flame in the bar of a hotel in this utterly dull American city. She asks him why he abandoned their relationship. He explains that he feels like he has been running for a long time. She is very angry with him. Like all the people in Michael’s world, from the cab driver who takes him to hotel, to his wife and son, this woman is voiced by Kaufman’s favorite voice actor, the egregiously talented Tom Noonan.
It’s about the time that we see Michael’s 3-D printed penis that Anomalisa begins to feel like masturbation, a state of being hinted at when Michael observes a man pleasuring himself from a hotel window.
The act of voyeurism usually precedes a revelation in Kaufman’s work. One dull person observes another and wonders why he is not allowed to do what the other does so casually. This is an illusion that Kaufman enjoys creating, a theme that strongly implies all of his manipulations of reality have the same point of origin: that the only inspiration in existence comes out of a merciless, all-consuming boredom.
Adapted from Kaufman’s audio play, Anomalisa takes place over the course of a single day. This theatrical length suits Kaufman’s dialogue, which can become a bit repetitive over time. Despite containing some of the best animation ever seen in the medium, Anomalisa is more in tune with a disconcerting reality than most of Kaufman’s cinematic fantasies.
Eventually Michael meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) whose voice is different, emerging from a weakened, screeching pulp of a diaphragm. He searches the building to find her as soon as he recognizes she does not sound like every other person in his drama. Michael climbs on top of her and offers to kiss her beneath her skirt. He last about four minutes during sex, and then informs her, “I don’t want to lose you. I lose everyone.”
With actual actors, Anomalisa would have fallen quite flat. The story of a white man in town for one night, cheating on his wife, represents a rather painful routine at this point. (I believe Neil LaBute made a terrible film on the subject in the last year.) The visual style infects the trope with a sincere vulnerability that could never be approached by fleshy actors who are too much themselves to be so prancing and straightforward. Kaufman’s co-director Duke Johnson can only make this familiar story real through his fastidious attention to detail and the accompanying voice work.
Some jokes based off the aural resonance of the actors’ staccato dialogue are lost in the adaptation, but the superb animation creates another, separate enjoyment within Anomalisa. It is humorous to see the clay-like bodies pressing against one another, but the fun really comes when we view Michael’s flushed face during sex or surprise. He must live only for the moment, since he wholly despises the rest of his life.
The worst part of Anomalisa is the nightmare Michael has after he sleeps with Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character. He experiences an encounter with all the different voices who sound identical to his wife and child. They tell him that they love him and he runs away, back to his room, knocking over a hotel staffer bringing his breakfast. The fantasy world is Kaufman’s usual world-within-a-world, but here it retards our suspension of disbelief. Anomalisa depends on its adherence to what we perceive as real. We can learn nothing from dreams that do not hew closely enough to our own reality.
Unlike Kaufman’s other films, Anomalisa has no relentlessly optimistic message underlying its apparent cynicism. It is no criticism to state that the film renders itself a bit emotionally hollow, since that is Kaufman’s desired effect: the feeling that we accomplish nothing by knocking on every door, by pursuing every single possible invitation. This is not intimacy, and we should have known better.
If you live on the surface of a bullseye, the analogy goes, you can surmise that the laws of physics regularly govern the creation of holes in your world. In Charlie Kaufman’s universe, the only immutable law is the sadness that establishes itself as a contagious disease, a virulent strain. Yet no one individual in his world can be held responsible for their fate. Only God can.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.
“Got A Little Bit Of Love” – Katy Carr (mp3)