Although I’m a fan of both Charlie Kaufman and high-concept films (and his films are nothing if not high-concept), I was initially turned off by Anomalisa. It was less the concept – a man is so bored with life that every other man, woman, and child looks and sounds the same to him . . . except one – than the stop-motion puppets that put me off, but after positive reviews and an intriuging trailer, I decided to give it a try. Maybe I should’ve stuck with my first reaction.
It’s not that Anomalisa is bad. The concept is well executed and the voice acting by Tom Noonan is nuanced enough that it takes three or four characters before something seems amiss; it’s only after the main character’s wife and son speak to him on the phone with the same adult male’s voice that it’s clear what’s going on. But the second half of the concept – that everyone also looks the same – is a bit muddled. Mostly it’s due to the puppets, as it’s not clear if every PERSON looks the same, which would be in keeping with the concept and thus further contribute to the mood, or every PUPPET looks the same, which would be a comment on the limitations of modern puppet design. I maintain it would’ve been a simpler concept to grasp had Noonan played all the roles via CGI, and that might have provided a little of the sheer insanity that some of Kaufman’s other films feature. (That said, Anomalisa never plays the puppets for laughs, unless you count copious male puppet nudity as funny.)
But the confusion over people versus puppets gets at the core of what’s wrong with Anomalisa. In Kaufman’s two best films, Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the “rules” of the world are clearly explained and treated as real: a real tunnel leads to the mind of the real actor John Malkovich, and a real company really erases your memories, respectively. Neither scenario is a metaphor, but rather a situation into which normal people are thrown and forced to react to. And both manage to deliver a profound, universal statement on love, something that should be easy for Anomalisa to do as well. Yet in Anomalisa, so much time is wasted establishing what turns out to be a high-concept metaphor that there’s little left for any character exploration. In addition, since almost all of said metaphor exists only in one character’s head, no other characters get to react to the concept. Imagine that the tunnel to John Malkovich’s mind was all in John Cusack’s head, or that the idea of a company erasing painful memories was simply Kate Winslet’s metaphor for moving on after a break up.
Ultimately, Anomalisa collapses under its own weight. Its concept is almost too simple to be weird, but the puppets make it almost too weird to be profound.