The puppets in Anomalisa are more than just an aesthetic choice but are instead weaved into the film’s cinematic elements. Anomalisa, then, becomes more than just a film centered on technical gimmicks; Anomalisa uses its unique aesthetic to create and tell a story that is only possible through its use of puppetry. Charlie Kaufman both directs and writes here and like his previous stories, Anomalisa is about existential issues, but what makes Anomalisa different from Kaufman’s other works, besides the obvious use of puppets, is Anomalisa’s focus on individuality.
As stated earlier, the cinematic elements of Anomalisa are worked into the film’s use of puppets and it is these same cinematic elements that Kaufman uses to place an emphasis on the film’s theme of individuality. For example, what at first seems like awkward and stinted dialogue, later on, after much dialogue which follows a similar pattern, reveals itself to be the main character’s perception of the world outside of himself as being bland. Despite the events of the film being the main character’s perception of the world, Anomalisa isn’t a film that wants the audience to side with its protagonist and think the same as he does, and that’s because while Anomalisa is a story about individuality, it’s also about the dangers of one’s own perception of the world and the subjectivity of how we see our relationships.
The creation of film, like human perception of relationships, is also subjective and so in Anomalisa there is something inherently cinematic but also, despite the puppetry or perhaps even more so because of the puppetry, quite human. Ultimately, Kaufman and his crew have created a film of both deceptive and genuine intimacy that at its core, is about human nature.
Michael Stone (Voiced by David Thewlis) is a successful self-help author on his way to Cincinnati, Ohio, in order to promote his latest book at a convention for customer-service professionals. On his land in, we learn by way of letter that Michael’s ex-girlfriend, Bella (Voiced by Tom Noonan), lives in Cincinnati. After arriving at his hotel, he looks her up in the phonebook (the film takes place in 2005), and subsequently calls her in hopes of reconciling things, despite the fact that Michael is now married. A distraught Bella who hasn’t spoken with Michael in 10 years, does show up but only briefly; Michael Stone is quite the asshole and Bella is soon put off by his selfish attitude before leaving. Michael Stone is popular, however, and once Bella leaves, he falls in with two women who are attending the convention just to hear his speech: Lisa (Voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) and her friend (Also voiced by Tom Noonan).
Like Michael, we as the audience quickly notice something spectacular about Lisa: up until this point, everyone Michael has met (a taxi driver, a bellhop, and Bella), all share the same voice, but now he meets Lisa and it is with Lisa’s voice that Michael falls in love with. What was once a bleak atmosphere becomes one of joy, and Michael has seemingly found the answer to his depression in the form of Lisa’s voice or so he thinks.
The voice-acting is just one of the ways in which Anomalisa exercises its themes. In being about individuality, one of the ways in which Michael views himself and Lisa as individuals, is through their respective voices. Michael and Lisa stand out from the rest of the crowd due to their unique voices and so for Michael, Lisa behaves as a sort of manic-pixie dream girl which means solving all of Michael’s problems by way of her presence alone. Lisa’s unique voice doesn’t just highlight her character as an individual in the eyes of Michael, however, but also points towards the fact that every other character in the film besides Michael is voiced by just one person. It is through his voice that Tom Noonan highlights the banality of not just the character’s attitudes but also Michael’s life and how he is seeing those characters.
Whereas conversations between Michael and Lisa are filled with joyous inflection, conversations between Michael and the rest of the film’s cast gives the appearance of simply going through the motions, with each party speaking in a rather robotic manner.
As a screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman’s films have dealt with metaphysical subjects through surrealism, yet it is here in Anomalisa, a film comprised of puppets and miniature sets, that Kaufman strives for a sense of realism which he is successful in. Quite jarring at first due to their extreme likeness in human appearance, the puppets stand out, especially because of the print lines that exist on their face. The puppets’ appearance creates a sense of uncanny valley, yet later on in the film it is more than possible to forget that you’re watching puppets onscreen and not real people. This is due in part for two reasons: the first is the extreme attention to detail Kaufman and his crew have put into the film. It’s not just the set pieces that appear real but all material objects in the film, such as clothing which are given their own fine detail and textures. Attention must also be paid to how the puppets move. What’s more impressive than simple body movements, which are already complex enough when dealing with stop-motion animation, is the facial movements of the puppets during dialogue. It is the reaction of the puppets to the environment around them that lend a serious amount of the atmospheric realism to the film.
One of the ways in which a fictional cinematic world can help itself maintain a sense of realism, is the way in which the fictional characters interact with the world, a detail that Anomalisa doesn’t forget. The bed squeaks during sex, ice swivels in cups, and elevators ding when pressed. What may seem like small details soon add up to draw the audience into a world that appearance wise, is no different than their own. The second reason why Anomalisa is so successful in forgetting it’s a film about puppets, is the patience in which Kaufman carries out the scenes. Film is able to compress time, in order to present a coherent story but with a story that is very minimalistic, Kaufman shuns compression and so each scene, no matter how banal in everyday routine it might be, has the impression of being real, and with this amount of patience given to every scene, Anomalisa’s story which runs the length of two nights, is given cohesion.
As Anomalisa is told through the eyes of Michael, and given the film’s subject matter and exercise of that matter, it is the role of the audience to discern where reality truly begins and where Michael’s fantasy ends. Do the bellhop, waitress, and Bella truly share the same voice or is it how Michael perceives the world in the face of an existential crises? Anomalisa isn’t so blunt to lay out all its answers and instead leaves room for interpretation but if anything, like Kaufman’s previous film Synedoche, New York, Anomalisa may stand as a warning about the dangers of entrapping oneself in their own fantasy.