Writer and director Charlie Kaufman has arguably one of the most imaginative minds in modern cinema, known for his distinct ability to tell ordinary stories in extraordinary ways. His characters cope with heartbreak by erasing the memories of their failed relationship in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” They escape their dissatisfying lives by literally possessing someone else’s body in 1999’s “Being John Malkovich.” But looking through another person’s eyes doesn’t mean you can see past your own perspective and erasing your mistakes means you won’t learn from them. His characters are flawed, bored, self-absorbed, insecure, lonely and altogether human.
Ironically, these themes have never come across so clearly as they do in Kaufman’s latest, most experimental work to date, last year’s “Anomalisa,” an R-rated, stop-motion animation film made with 3-D printed puppets. Co-directed by animator Duke Johnson, the story begins with a sea of voices and overlapping conversations that show off Kaufman’s ear for natural human dialogue from the start. But something is very wrong. Only after several minutes does the curious problem become clear: all the voices are the same, as is every other voice that protagonist Michael Stone (David Thewlis) encounters before meeting the anomaly that is Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
The rest of the world, however, has one voice (Tom Noonan) and one face, regardless of gender, body type, or relation to him—from his bellboy and cabdriver to his wife and son. And so the story follows Michael as he flies to Cincinnati to promote his recent book, “How Can I Help You with Them?” at a recent convention. We watch as he suffers exhaustedly through the tediousness of everyday human transactions, which seem to painfully drag on, like the concierge who talks… just a little bit… too slowly. Adding another layer of irony in the form of a customer service expert who cannot stand interacting with customer service employees.
After a disastrously shallow attempt to reconnect with an old flame and understand where things had gone wrong, and a blundering, drunken trip to an adult “toy” store in search for a birthday present to give his young son the following day, it becomes apparent that Michael looks for things in all the wrong places. Perhaps it is most clear when he finally hears the miraculous voice of Lisa outside the door of his hotel room, exclaiming excitedly to himself, “Someone else!”
By this point, however, should we feel happy for Michael, or disturbed by him? Is Lisa the manic-pixie-dream-girl he’s been waiting for to save him? Is she the only unique person in an otherwise interchangeable world of people? Does he actually care about the things she has to say, or is it merely the way he chooses to hear them? Is it cute or concerning when she poorly sings for him Cindi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” and it brings tears to his eyes?
Kaufman has a way of revealing the hilarity in tragedy—the vulnerable, ugly and most pathetic aspects of the human condition in all their ridiculous and egotistical glory. He exposes and explores these intimate and embarrassing aspects of ourselves through an expert use of medium and metaphor. They stay at the Fregoli hotel, a reference to the Fregoli delusion where someone believes that everyone else in the world is a singular person. The lines of the plates which divide the puppets’ faces are clearly and intentionally visible in almost every shot.
Yet, their unreality makes the feelings they express that much more poignant and somehow real. The emotions on their plastic faces are strikingly and absorbingly human. Yet, together, the story they tell is sad and familiar, one of blinded people who yearn to connect with anyone outside themselves, but are doomed to repeat the same mistakes.
“Sometimes there is no lesson,” Michael Stone wisely notes, but doesn’t learn. “That’s the lesson.”
Etta Griffin is a fourth-year student majoring in English writings with a minor in journalism. She can be reached at EG826453@wcupa.edu.