I think you’re extraordinary. I don’t know why yet. It’s just obvious to me that you are.
This is something of a difficult movie to review, I think; in some senses, it’s a difficult one to watch. And I don’t (just) mean how awkward it feels to see stopmotion sex.
Charlie Kaufman has something of a reputation of being, to put it bluntly, a genius. This is the first film of his that I’ve ever watched, so my expectations were high; particularly so, given that the praise for this movie was just through the roof. I mean, take a look at the soundbites on the film’s poster – it isn’t just “perfect”, it’s “a rare sliver of transcendence”. It’s a “rare and haunting marvel” that, apparently, changed someone’s life. So, you know, that’s an astonishingly high bar to set.
Particularly I was drawn to the line that says “the most human film of the year”; not least because that was the only tagline I was aware of before I saw the movie, but there’s something about that which is just so… enticing, to me. I’m quite interested in drama (obviously) and I want to get into writing myself someday, so there’s something about “the most human film of the year” which sounds to me to be a ridiculously high piece of praise to level at something.
Watching the film, though? Hmm. I’m struggling to properly put a pin in what I actually thought of it.
It did feel quite real, right from the off, beginning with the banalities of plane rides and hotels. (It’s possible this resonated with me moreso because I was watching the movie on a plane, having recently left a hotel.) I think in some ways this sequence was made more effective because it was done in stopmotion; it’s the juxtaposition between the very “true” feeling dialogue and the obvious-yet-uncanny-valley-esque puppets that really highlights the more human side of this movie, I think. It draws it into much sharper focus, and I think the film benefits from this throughout; Anomalisa is tied quite closely to its stopmotion format, really availing of the medium in such a way that it wouldn’t work otherwise.
The stopmotion, incidentally, is fantastic. I have some experience with that medium myself, having made a few shorts over the years – but we’re talking weeks’ worth of work, to produce fairly simplistic videos of a minute and a half tops. Anomalisa is so advanced as to be nearly incomparable to what I did, though, and it’s frankly a work of art in itself. A stunning accomplishment, really, which would have taken a hell of a lot of effort; it paid off, in any case, because Anomalisa came out looking absolutely gorgeous.
I just don’t know that Anomalisa was actually as smart as it thought it was, or as smart as it wanted to be.
Anomalisa is about loneliness, to some extent; David Thewlis’ character, Matthew Stone, clearly feels quite isolated and spends the runtime of the movie desperately searching for some meaningful human connection. When he does find it, it’s so fleeting as to barely last at all. In a lot of ways, the depiction of loneliness here is quite well done – the dialogue is fantastic, the feeling permeates the movie, and there’s an aspect of it that seems quite true throughout. Stone repeats with Lisa what he did with the other woman; the irony is that she isn’t an “anomaly Lisa”, she’s just the latest in a long string of women he does that with. He’s sad and lonely and a little pathetic, and he can’t connect with people, because he gets so caught up with the romantic ideals and doesn’t consider the person behind the idealised fiction version. It’s a well-presented story, and in many regards it’s quite clever.
It’s not that clever, though. Because Anomalisa doesn’t really say anything about loneliness, and I don’t feel it presents anything particularly new or all that interesting. The high concept, essentially, is “let’s tell a story about a lonely middle-aged man who has an affair… except it’s stop motion!” and then that’s just sort of the extent of it. There’s a rather out of place, yet wholly predictable, dream sequence; it adds little, feeling largely superfluous, and you can sort of guess what’s going to happen in it from the first time you see the stop motion models. Towards the end of the movie, we’ve even got Stone saying “sometimes there is no meaning, and at times that’s a meaning in and of itself”; this feels rather like a cop-out, to be honest, as if the movie itself is rejecting the idea it needs to have some level of substance. It’s taken the simplest representation of loneliness you can have, and presented it in an interesting way – that’s not enough to make the heart of the movie feel anything other than quite superficial.
I’m quite frustrated, really, that I feel this way. Primarily because I actually did, generally speaking, enjoy most of it; it was reasonably clever, and entertaining enough, despite feeling terribly lacking in a few key areas. More than that, though, I want to understand why everyone else loves it so much, and what they took away from it that I didn’t. While I’m not exactly disinclined to go against the critical consensus, I do feel like “yeah it’s just not that great” isn’t really a strong enough argument in the face of such significant praise. There was a distinct feeling that I’d missed something about the movie; I did some more reading, and I did pick up on some more nuanced ambiguities before. The Japanese sex doll, for example, wasn’t quite as gratuitous as I thought and did open up some questions as to whether or not Stone’s night with Lisa was hallucinatory; I was also able to clarify a few points regarding the voice work and the impact of it.
Ultimately, though, none of what I’ve read actually made me feel any the wiser. Anomalisa feels like a movie that needs a rewatch to fully appreciate it, but there was little about it that made me think it deserved an immediate rewatch; I suspect I’d only be watching it to keep searching for some deeper meaning that I’m just not going to find. If you’ve got any clever comments on it, or you can link me to a great essay about the movie, I would love to hear from you; I get the sense that I’m going to be trying to make Anomalisa into something it’s not for quite some time.
I’m going to eschew a rating for this movie, in part because I still don’t feel that I “get” it, but also… well, sometimes there is no rating, and at times that’s a rating in and of itself.
(See? Such a cop-out.)
Note from Alex of 2018: I’m inclined to tell you to disregard most of the above, though I’ve not actually rewatched Anomalisa since writing this. It’s going to be near the top of my list, though, because I still think I’ve missed something.
I’ll add this bit in later.