Charlie Kaufman is undoubtedly among my favourite artists. Two of the films in my top ten – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Synecdoche, New York – come from his pen, and his collaborations with Spike Jonze aren’t far behind. His work is defined by an enticing creative restlessness, realised in the intimidating thematic density of his works. Already outlandish premises – what if you could be John Malkovich for an hour? What if you could erase all your memories of a bad relationships – branch out into increasingly-elaborate narratives defined by unexpected but inevitable shifts in direction and tone. Combined with a vibrant strain of self-loathing and self-awareness, Kaufman represents the closest cinema has come to having its own David Foster Wallace.
Anomalisa is a different kind of Kaufman film. It’s the second time the screenwriter has squeezed into the director’s chair; this time alongside Duke Johnson, who provides his expertise with puppetry. You see, where Synecdoche, New York expanded its intimidating scope to incorporate the entirety of human existence (or at least, made a valiantly futile effort to do so), Anomalisa takes a smaller approach. Miniature puppets operate as uncanny facsimiles of humanity – complete with beer guts and floppy penises – while the story’s scale is limited to a day or two, mostly within a single hotel room.
That narrowing of focus mirrors Kaufman’s approach to the script (pseudonymously credited to Francis Fregoli), which eschews his usual explosive ambition for a simpler approach. Like most of his films, there’s an engaging yet unconventional premise, but the way it is allowed to unfold is more straightforward; even predictable (a word I would never have previously used to describe Kaufman’s work). Reflecting its origins as a radio play back in 2005, it has a conscious narrowness to it; closer to works of Franz Kafka than DFW.
Kafka’s shadow may be darkened by my current reading material: the author’s famous short story Metamorphosis which chronicles a salesman’s inexplicably transformation into a human-sized cockroach. The influence of Kafka is hardly unfamiliar to the silver screen, from the many adaptations of his work (Welles’ take on The Trial being the most notable) to David Lynch’s discomfiting dream-logic. At his best, the author revealed the ridiculousness of ordinary life by depicting worlds adjacent to our own reality; in the opening chapter of Metamorphosis, for instance, protagonist Gregor Samsa is more concerned with being late for work than his transformation into an insectile aberration.
Anomalisa achieves a similar feat through its premise. A premise which, you’ve probably noticed, I’ve been carefully avoiding explaining. That’s a deliberate choice; one of the film’s chief pleasures (if that’s the word) is the gradual understanding of what, in fact, is happening to self-help speaker/author Michael Stone (David Thewlis). If you’re particularly familiar with obscure psychological disorders, though, you might be able to guess it from Kaufman’s pen-name (which is also the name of the hotel in which Michael stays in the film).
Regardless of the specifics of the premise, Kaufman approaches it with the same sort of ‘ordinariness’ that makes Kafka’s writing so memorable. I’ve seen other critics embrace the film as, say, a full-bodied evocation of the depths of depression or, alternatively, dismiss it as a shallow representation of privileged male angst. Neither interpretation is invalid, but I tend to think Anomalisa is strongest simply for what it is – a carefully-judged, finely-detailed demonstration of what it would be like to live in Michael Stone’s circumstances (if you’re finding this tiptoeing particularly frustrating, feel free to spoil yourself over at Wikipedia).
By contrasting Michael’s existence with the realities of our own, we become cognisant of the ridiculousness of our own reality in much the same way as we do reading a Kafka novella. That’s true even in the minutiae of the puppetry. As we watch Stone idly pace around his hotel room – absent narrative purpose – as we watch him flipping through brochures or becoming accustomed to an unfamiliar bathroom, the sheer mundanity of our everyday life is made abundantly clear. (Especially if we consider the stop-motion artists who would’ve spend hours and days animating this slice of the quotidian.)
It’s understandable, then, why the film has provoked such diverse responses and interpretations; as suggested by its poster, it’s offering up a mirror to our own lives. Perhaps we sympathise with Michael’s plight; perhaps it reflects our own longing for connection in an unfeeling universe. Perhaps we instead linger on his misdeeds – of which there are many; Kaufman is well-and-truly continuing his pattern of sadsack, solipsistic protagonists – and find ourselves dismissive of his petty concerns. Maybe, instead, we find ourselves drawn to Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) – or “Anomalisa” – the nervous young woman Michael falls for midway through the film.
Such varying interpretations are invited by the film’s refusal to explain itself too intently, outside of a misjudged scene where Michael breaks into an anti-consumerist rant. If I had to guess, I’d credit this scene to a relic of the 2005 radioplay; it lacks the maturity of Kaufman’s more recent works and could’ve been omitted altogether.
The strength of Anomalisa is its simplicity, but I admit there were times I longed for the ambition that defines Kaufman’s other (better) works. A sojourn into surrealism mid-film is cruelly snatched away; I imagine that Kafka’s version of this story wouldn’t have jolted out of this nightmarish tenor by revealing it was, in fact, a dream. That simplicity also affects the pacing; while the mundanity of Michael’s hotel existence might be entirely intentional, that doesn’t entirely forgive the flabbiness of the film’s midsection.