"What is it to be human, what is it to ache, what is it to be alive."
Charlie Kaufman, you already know you’re going to do a lot of thinking. No matter what else you have seen recently in the world of cinema, nothing compares to what Charlie Kaufman is making, but don’t mistake that for instant praise. While ‘Being John Malkovich’, ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ and ‘Adaptation’ were all breath-taking and wondrous, I controversially take issue with ‘Synecdoche, New York’ his directorial debut (I’ll explain why later) and the main question going into ‘Anomalisa’, his next directorial effort, is as follows; what?
Customer service representative Michael is feeling isolated and disconnected from the rest of the world, searching for meaning. Then he meets Lisa, who may or may not be the love of his life. But come on, it’s a Kaufman movie, the premise is almost an afterthought.
Now that it’s later, I can explain that while there was a lot to admire in ‘Synecdoche’ and the film has devout followers (Roger Ebert named it the best film of the decade) I’ve always felt a disconnection to it, as if its themes and undercurrents were too far reaching for its own creators to comprehend and there was a distinct lack of humanity within the film for me, not to mention how damn depressing it was, I know not all films have to be happy and fun but when you examine the premise it implies some wonder and ‘Being John Malkovich’, ‘Adaptation’, and ‘Eternal Sunshine’ were not nearly as devoid of happiness.
‘Anomalisa’ instantly resolves some of my issues with Kaufman’s previous film, even though its premise is far more menial (it is essentially a romantic comedy as far as the plot goes) but of course, being stop-motion animated allows the film to naturally carry a cheerful and wondrous nature to it without any effort. It carries even more charm with just how natural the movements and dialogue is, initially it is almost surreal to see animation look this realistic, not that you ever forget you are watching puppets, but they inhabit their world so similarly to the way we inhabit ours that you have to marvel at the level of detail and skill of the writing.
Kaufman’s writing takes the most trivial of conversations and gives weight and essence to them, a short and improvised recital of ‘Girls just wanna have fun’ turns into something distinctly beautiful and as we watch his usual and quirky imagination permeate this script, and that is where the animation comes into its own. The sets are beautifully designed and shot with the help of Kaufamn’s co-director Duke Johnson (perhaps his best known work includes the episode of ‘Community’, ‘Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas’), and multiple moments (particularly within the third act in which things start to slide into the uncanny valley) half a dreamlike sense of spectacle to them, while being full of intimate and personal moments of character. It was everything that was missing from ‘Synecdoche’.
But what was not kissing from ‘Synecdoche’ was a satisfying and definitive conclusion, and while I may not have understood what it was trying to say, I felt like it said something. Just when ‘Anomalisa’ feels like it’s preparing to make a poignant statement on … whatever Kaufman wants to talk about, it just stops. It all happens so fast that one can’t help but feel almost dissatisfied with the result as its deep thinking nature ultimately builds up to a very fast conclusion that seems to lack any final sentiment or declaration.
What was Kaufman trying to say with this movie? I’ve never been less sure of that with any other project of his I’ve seen. With ‘Being John Malkovich’ there seemed to be the theme of perspective, ‘Adaptation’ had creativity running throughout and ‘Eternal Sunshine’ contained an evisceration of relationships. Is ‘Anomalisa’ trying to say something about love, mundanity, life itself? I have no idea and I’m not saying this film would be better if it directly told me, but I feel as if the film chooses to stop rather than risk tackling anything specific and can’t think of what to do next, so just wraps it up and lets us decide. Normally this would be a fantastic way to end the film, leaving it to interpretation, but as I said the abrupt nature of it doesn’t quite sit right with me.
‘Anomalisa’ is just asking to be studied and pondered over, and I have little doubt it will be as it is unique and deeply provoking, even if it inevitably escapes its own grasp.