We have come to expect mind games from Charlie Kaufman. Anomalisa certainly falls into that category, but not for the reasons of his other film. The situation he portrays is very much tied to reality. It is the way it is presented that messes with our minds.
Anomalisa, directed by Kaufman and Duke Johnson, may be a stop-action animated film using fairly realistic puppets (which are, by the way, anatomically correct) yet we are struck by just how down to earth the story and the emotions are that are being played out in puppetry.
Michael (voiced by David Thewlis) is an author of a book on customer service. He is on a trip to Cincinnati to talk to a conference. There are various people he meets (all except one, whether male or female, voiced by Tom Noonan). But Michael is in the midst of an attack of ennui. Even in a new town, he experiences nothing. Even though a loquacious cabbie tells him some of what Cincinnati has to offer (including Cincinnati chili and the Cincinnati Zoo), he just assumes it will all be boring. That is one of the reasons that all voices are the same to him. He is very much like Qoheleth in the opening chapter of Ecclesiastes:
All things are wearisome;
more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:8f)
He tries to connect with an old girlfriend, but when they meet for a drink it turns out badly. Heading back to his room he hears a voice that intrigues and attracts him. Going door to door in the hotel, he comes across the room shared by Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) and a coworker. The two women are fans of Michael’s book and after a few drinks, all head back to their rooms and Michael asks Lisa to join him in his. The tentativeness of the relationship is exactly as it should be—even as it becomes sexual (and yes, there is a puppet sex scene). It is a wonderful night for them, but in the morning….
The key word for the film, as the title suggests, is anomaly. Lisa (and her unique voice) is an anomaly in Michael’s wearisome world. It is of interest that the theme of his book about customer service is that customers will feel valued if you find one thing about them to appreciate while you interact. He encourages people to find an anomaly. Although Lisa is an anomaly in his world, part of this problem is that he is unable to appreciate the many things and people that are all around him, even people we expect he loves.
It is easy to feel like Michael (and Qoheleth before him) believes that there is nothing new under the sun. The day to day routines that make up life can be so tedious that we may not be able to find anything worth our attention. Yet, there really is a world waiting to be found, to be seen. There are people whose voices we still have to hear for the first time. And as the Ecclesiastes makes clear, it is in the living of our lives that we can find the very things we are looking for.