Part of the joy of being a fan is finding odd and obscure gems that you end up falling in love with. For every Batman, there is a Darkman. For every Star Wars, there is a Space Mutiny. Here at Fandom, we like to go hunting for some offbeat and off-the-wall films and TV shows that might just become your own secret treasures. Strap yourself in and expect the unexpected, because this week’s Weird Watch is…
The truly best movies change you, at least temporarily. You step out of the theater and the world looks different. The director took your universe and just slightly tilted it the wrong way. Maybe it’s only by a difference of a couple of degrees, but your life, the people around you, somehow it all seems off. Eventually, that feeling fades as you return to your normal life with normal concerns. But maybe, just for an instant, you have a better insight of who you are and what your life means. Your point of view is stranger but richer.
Anomalisa is the kind of movie that creates that feeling. It is Charlie Kaufman’s stop-motion puppet movie. The concept sounds like an in-joke from the director/writer, who is known for such things, (see: Adaptation). This would be the movie that his character Craig Schwartz from Being John Malkovich would have made.
But Anomalisa is so much more than that. The film is deeply disturbing but also at times soft and sweet. It’s a tale of mundane loneliness which spreads eventually to full-on existential despair. It has a puppet sex scene more graphic than that the porn gag from Team America: World Police. However here it is a striking piece of filmmaking, touching and beautiful. Anomalisa is one of the weirdest movies of the decade so far, but also one of the best.
The first thing you’ll notice that’s strange about Anomalisa is that everybody other than the protagonist, Michael Stone (David Thewlis), has the same face. They also have one voice, the mild drone of actor Tom Noonan. Men, women, children, even Michael’s own family all look and talk like a vaguely obnoxious white guy. There is something punchable in the inoffensiveness of these people. Their faces, their actions – everything is a polite lie. Tom Noonan is great at the role of the entire human race. He plays dozens of characters differently and with honest emotions. But be it an idiot cab driver or Michael’s ex-girlfriend, Tom Noonan always speaks with that same awful mild drone.
Michael is trapped alone in a Hell where everybody is just a tad bit irritating in a passive-aggressive way. It’s a torture of routine. Michael is used to this. He ignores it so well we’re not sure if he can see what’s wrong with the world. Eventually, we discover he can and is screaming on the inside.
The plot of Anomalisa is set over the course of a single tedious business trip. Michael is visiting Cincinnati, Ohio, an unremarkable Midwestern city whose only highlight seems to be a zoo. He is staying in a standard city hotel room to give a speech at a convention on the exciting wonders of customer service. The character carries himself with a dulled disinterest in everything around him. And why should he be excited? Every new person he could meet and every experience he could have would just be with a Tom Noonan. He might as well not even try.
Anomalisa portrays the slow boredom of a lonely life. We see Michael step out of the shower naked (the puppet is fully anatomically correct), but not to titillate us. It is just to remind us of the paunch and unimpressive anatomy of a middle-aged man. Michael steps through the motions of airports, cab rides, overly friendly strangers, and room service. He calls his family to make standard reports, has flat banter with his son, and stares out the window towards a depressingly generic skyline.
All the details of our modern America are correct, but we can share Michael’s disgust. There is nothing remarkable about any of it. Cincinnati might as well be any place in the world. The setting is as anonymous as the Tom Noonans.
The film gets more visually unique when it comes to the characters. Anomalisa wants to show you how the sausage is made. You can see a line in the heads, revealing the character’s faces as two parts. (This makes most characters look as if they’re wearing glasses.) The Tom Noonan Folk have a visible line around their faces as if its a mask. At one surreal moment, Michael’s jaw starts to click and he jumps between expressions wildly, before it snaps back into place. He later has a nightmare that it falls off completely. Charlie Kaufman never wants us to forget this is a movie about puppets. But ironically, it’s one of the most human stories put to film over the last few years.
Eventually, Michael meets the one person in this world with her own face and voice. This is Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a young woman who has come to Michael’s conference with her friend, Emily (Tom Noonan, of course). Michael upon meeting her is instantly filled with hope and joy that he has not felt in years. She is an anomaly, his “Anomalisa”. During the course of the night, Michael shares with Lisa drinks. He has her sing a song to him in her special female tone, as even the radio has been replaced with Tom Noonan.
Eventually, they make love in an awkward but tender scene. It’s full of mistakes, shyness, and bumps on the heads, but it’s an incredible piece of cinema. It isn’t a glamorous fantasy, it’s better.
Where outwardly Michael is wildly successful, Lisa is quiet and unassuming. Her friend Emily is more outgoing and would be considered prettier by most people who don’t see a Tom Noonan. Lisa is constantly apologizing for little things. She has a scar on her face that she covers up with her hair. Michael is the first person that she has met who tells her she is beautiful. Even her amateur version of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” is enrapturing for him. (She begs Michael not to laugh, but her honesty makes it moving.) Their love is short but very warm in a movie that is otherwise terribly cold. To Michael, it’s his last hope, it’s to Lisa her first.
In a different kind of movie, Lisa would be Michael’s salvation. She could help him rediscover life and get out of his own head. That’s not Anomalisa.
You know well in advance that this relationship is not going to work. We’re told again and again that Michael has ruined lives in his wake before. Then we see that dynamic start to play out between the two. He is not seeing Lisa for a person, but just as a unique face. His lust isn’t the obvious kind (Lisa is not unpretty, yet hardly a supermodel), but it’s just as shallow. By the end of the movie, you realize that Michael is not a very good person.
However, while Michael seems to be on a surface level a horrible man, his plight is humanized. Whether the Tom Noonan people are simply a metaphor for Michael’s disgust for his life, or if he legitimately is having a psychological disturbance, Charlie Kaufman has let us sympathize with him. In a way, we’re not so different. We are always ignoring the world around us. We assume that the vast majority of people we see in our lives are unimportant or uninteresting. The strangers we choose not to pay attention to might as well be Tom Noonans.
Anomalisa reminds us just how lost in ourselves we really are, and how terribly lonely that can be. But it also shows that between the loneliness, there can still be beautiful moments between people. That’s a message worth hearing. You might spend some time afterward lost in Charlie Kaufman’s slanted way of looking at the world, but it’s very much worth it.