In their first directorial collaboration, Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson (Moral Orel) deliver a sad but heartfelt film that seamlessly integrates Kaufman's creativity and Johnson's stop-motion animation skills. The film is an adaptation of Kaufman's play of the same name, which is also worth checking out. Anomalisa explores many of the same themes as Kaufman's other works, such as isolation and loneliness. However, the fact that this film is animated unlike his other works adds another layer of depth in the exploration of these themes. Despite its short length, Anomalisa was able to effectively explore the nuances of depression and loneliness through an engaging medium.
The film follows Michael (David Thewlis), a famous motivational speaker for customer service representatives who travels to Cincinnati for a business conference. Despite this fame, he feels an ever-present loneliness and a lack of self-fulfillment. At the conference, he meets a shy girl named Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a fan of his work who attends the conference. The two of them immediately exhibit a deep emotional connection that neither of them had previously experienced, and quickly decide to begin an affair. However, by the next morning, Michael becomes disillusioned with this idea and returns to his wife and child, with nothing gained emotionally from the experience.
Though Anomalisa is Kaufman's first animated feature, he was able to effectively transpose his usual ingenuity to this film through exploring Michael's alienation. Here, every character except for Michael and Lisa is based on the same puppet model and is voiced by the same person (Tom Noonan). Therefore, the characters Michael interacts with become indistinguishable because they literally look and sound the same to the audience, and figuratively as such to Michael. The film was set up this way to establish Michael's mental health. Michael, like many of Kaufman's characters, is very lonely and depressed. He cannot emotionally connect with anyone around him, not even his wife and son. This isolation corresponds with the film's setup because everyone is metaphorically the same to Michael and literally to the audience.
It is this set-up that makes Lisa's entrance so pertinent. She not only sticks out to Michael because of their similar personality types, but also to the audience due to her voice and physical appearance. She is the first person Michael has encountered in the film who sounds different than everyone else. Later in the film, when Michael loses interest in Lisa, her voice morphs into Tom Noonan's, thus signifying her rejection from Michael life. He no longer sees her as an escape from his depression.
Like many people with depression, Michael feels cemented in his current situation with an overwhelming sense of guilt and shame. He constantly mulls over on his mistake of leaving his girlfriend eight years prior, to the point of keeping the letters she sent him and envisioning her scolding him for his mistakes. He cannot move on, and thus suffers even more. He believes that no one in his life can help his situation, and thus cannot emotionally connect with anyone. Once Lisa enters his life, he immediately fixates on her, specifically her voice. The fact that she sounds different from everyone else attracts him to her, as opposed to the actual words she says. This fixation presents the main issue with their relationship: Michael sees Lisa as a tool for his recovery, as opposed to just a person. In reality, having an affair with someone after only knowing them for one night would be disastrous. Michael is merely chasing an idea and does not recognize the implications of such a decision.
The fact that Michael does not change emotionally from this experience is the most poignant part of the film for me. Michael's loneliness and isolation are very complex and encompass many aspects of his life. Meeting a girl for one night would not fix everything, as Michael hopes. Such interactions are only temporal, especially since their relationship is established superficially. Kaufman and Johnson portray Michael's emotional turmoil with the kind of honesty and poignancy that is much needed to respectfully explore these subjects. Watching this film is cathartic for anyone, whether they're experiencing loneliness or not.