FilmScene — Opens Friday, Jan. 22
The notion of the “uncanny valley” is a familiar topic in discussions around video games and computer animation. It’s a relatively simple idea: animation can be cute, endearing and even empathetic within a certain level of abstraction, but as the animated object edges closer to the reality of human forms, particularly the face, the effect can be unsettling. This is why most of our animated films shy away from any attempt to make us think their characters are “real”—even the human characteristics in Pixar films rely on the distortions that give life to cartoon characters. Charlie Kaufman’s new stop-motion animation film Anomalisa, by contrast, embraces the uncanny valley, and in a way that somehow makes it all the more relatable, at least to a point.
The film, like many of the previous films Kaufman has written and/or directed, mines both humor and profound sadness from the flaws and insecurities of its main characters. The story concerns a middle-aged man, Michael Stone (David Thewlis), who has arrived in Cincinnati to give an address at a conference. Michael writes the kind of self-help books ambitious career people read; his specialty is customer service—his most recent book the redundantly titled Help Me Help You Help Them. Something is odd about Michael, though: everyone he knows, everyone he meets seems to have the same voice (Tom Noonan) and the same face. Oh yes, and he and everyone else are puppets.
Kaufman has trod similar territory before: perhaps the best scene in Being John Malkovich (1999), which he wrote, has the titular actor enter the secret tunnel that leads inside his own head. Occupying his own consciousness as an outsider, Malkovich is confronted with a restaurant in which the waiters, the customers, and even the children all have his face, and can only utter the word “Malkovich.” A single scene in Malkovich about narcissism becomes, in Anomalisa, an entire film about alienation, about feeling trapped within your own world, unable to reach those of other people.
The puppets in the film straddle what is surely an intentional line between the mechanical and the human: while Michael’s face is highly expressive, we can always see the dividing lines between the plates of the puppet’s face that allow him to make those subtle movements. The use of puppets to produce this uncanny effect reflects Michael’s interior anxiety that he, too, might just be another automaton.
Michael is allegedly an expert in communication—although it might be observed that customer service is hardly the height of nuance in human relations—but clearly, he has trouble communicating with other people. Arriving in Cleveland, he attempts to reconnect with an ex-girlfriend, but she too sounds and looks like everyone else. His disenchantment with the outside world and his inability to relate to another person as a unique individual begins to change, however, when he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who has her own face and voice. It’s at the introduction of Lisa that the film’s originality cedes ground to more familiar devices.
For all the immediate admiration Michael bestows upon her, Lisa is a very roughly drawn character, and what is there strikes an odd tone. It is unclear what she sees in Michael, other than that she already knows his book. While certainly the oddness of their attraction is part of the point—Michael grows infatuated merely because she is the only other human(-puppet) that has her own voice—the film doesn’t give the viewer enough of an outline of her character to relate to her decisions. In the end, Lisa feels more like a convenient device than a character, despite an epilogue that tries to attest otherwise.
One might observe that Michael’s brand of alienation is to some degree an effect of the modern world. Many of the trappings of modern life we are shown in Anomalisa—the predictable, undistinguished and indistinguishable confines of airports and hotels or of Midwestern mini-metropolises like Cincinnati—can turn other individuals into something of a wash. Other people (surely never ourselves) can end up seeming as mass-produced as the objects they consume and the spaces they inhabit.
Michael is unable to see unique individuals even in the idiosyncratic gestures of people he meets, like the man on the plane who instinctively grabs his hand when the landing gets bumpy. Telling a story from such a solipsistic worldview would quickly grow tiring if Kaufman didn’t fill the film with such particularizing quirks. The latter seem comically paradoxical when almost everyone in the film has the same face and voice. And some of the funniest moments come from the accidents and banalities of living with a human body, made all the more amusing because one is always—at times dimly, at other times acutely—aware that the bodies on the screen are mechanical.
However well the set-up of Michael’s situation and state of mind work in the first half of the film, however many of Kaufman’s somewhat melancholy jokes hit, the second half of the narrative falters. What does Michael need to help him out of his existential funk? Why, a pretty, younger woman, one who has not been spiritually defeated by the Cincinnatis of the world, and who is pure of heart—or (what amounts to the same thing for Kaufman’s characters) is ordinary and unpretentious. Anomalisa’s reliance on this trope ultimately weakens an otherwise sensitive and humane look at depression and alienation.
Anomalisa runs at FilmScene through Thursday, Jan. 28.