Anomalisa has just disappointed me for the second time. It’s probably worth prefacing this by making clear Charlie Kaufman is probably (okay, definitely) my favourite screenwriter of all time. So obviously I was excited about this film and wanted it to be great. And it wasn’t. Last night I armed myself with a fan theory, ready to unearth all that juicy Kaufman depth. And it wasn’t there.
The film is filled with pointless asides. They fit thematically, but they’re not a lot of fun. There’s a decent amount of time devoted to him whistling or ordering room service or making small talk with a taxi driver. Usually Kauffman is so good at combining entertainment with deep philosophical ideas. But here he just repeats one inane ‘joke’ over again which is how banal everything is. The first half is filled with so many lines played for comedic effect because of the sheer mundanity. It’s certainly incongruous to see endless small talk in a film, but it’s not amusing or entertaining. And thematically this just hammers the same point, that Michael is isolated and disenfranchised without ever adding it to it. The film takes so long to change pace that it honestly feels like it’s just wasting your time.
And there are the aforementioned fan theories which try to explain it. Of course this is Kaufman so you can never take everything at face value. Of particular interest was this one which argues that Lisa was never real, but he imagined her as he had sex with the Japanese doll he bought. There’s some strong evidence for it, and I believe it’s true. I also believe that Charlie Kauffman deliberately kept in some holes to keep a degree of ambiguity. I’m sure there are other fan theories with traction and flaws. Every Kauffman film wants us to think about the subject deeply and really question every detail. Fan theories can be great for giving us reason to come back to a film and find new ideas. But there’s a major problem with a film when it needs these theories to make it interesting. The main show needs to be so good that you want to peer back further, but they’re using the opposite tact here. The main show is so dull he’s hoping we’ll want to look further to understand something like this could get made. Only someone with the reputation of Kaufman could get away with this, and truthfully I think it’s kind of arrogant and lazy. He’s using his public standing to get away with murder.
The film deals with the very real and terrifying solipsistic thoughts I’m sure we’ve all had at some point. But they feel oddly underdeveloped and sophomoric here, especially compared with his earlier films. The conceptual ‘what if?’ of the film is ‘what if you REALLY were the only real person?’, and it sounds like an interesting jumping off point. But there’s not much beyond that here. First Michael is sad and isolated. Then he meets Lisa and for a second he’s interested/engaged. Then she becomes like everyone else again and Michael resumes loneliness. Again, as a framework that’s interesting. But the detail of the film doesn’t really offer much beyond that. In the brisk ninety minute run time, we have a tangentially related dream sequence, two renditions of ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ and the aforementioned FOREVER long intro. This leaves the main story feeling just… lacking.
Michael is inherently, intentionally, a narcissist. He sums up his problems saying ‘I’ve got no one to talk to’. He’s not interested in finding connection with another for the other’s sake – only to please himself. He begins and the ends the film this way. His affair with Lisa taught him nothing – he undergoes no character development or change over the course of the story. I really find this to be quite worrying. It’s an ugly way to live, and a temptation we all feel. But Anomalisa offers no conclusion and asks no questions about this. And this is the real crux of my problem with it. It taps into this issue without offering anything towards it.
And yes, the animation is brilliant. The voice acting is too, but these are just dressing up a fundamentally weak and underdeveloped story. I guess that proves Charlie Kauffman can still surprise me.