This could very well be the most pessimistic movie of Charlie Kaufman’s career, and this is from the person who wrote/directed, “Synecdoche, New York”. It is a valuable example of Brad Bird’s famous argument that, “Animation is not a genre”, in that animation is capable of a more than just the, “Just for kids” stereotyping studio executives often accept to their peril (“Minions”…*shudder*). But more than that, it’s a devastating work of both tenderness and the destruction thereof, in a modern world that reduces people to mere machinations to a literal degree…it’s just that it’s a story told through a protagonist so self-centered and so unlikable that at first it seems to be just an exercise in art school, “too cool for optimism” approach that Kaufman appears to be pegged with (this time co-directing with Duke Johnson of, “Morel Orel” and, “Frankenhole”). Well, I want to say that if one would just pay attention (and how can one not, because the animation is fucking gorgeous), one will realize that this is not just a love story: this is a story about how humans relate to other humans.
The plot is so simple that I don’t want to give it away, so please so go see it for yourself. Yes, it seems a bit strange on the surface (and it IS a bit strange when you watch it), but just drink in every syllable and sequence of this creative, affecting and brutal look at modern life, love and the yearning for it…almost all of it from the point of view of a droll, desperate person. Yes, it’s a bitter pill of a movie, but at least it’s a smart, beautiful and honest one. After all, no great teacher said enlightenment is easy.
At first glance, this is a movie that seems to be a, “love conquers all” story. However, in this case, such an attempt at love and relation fails. The idea of love as a redeeming force is something that humanity has shared with itself since…well, before civilization, apparently. The oldest known version of Cinderella as of this writing is a version told in China, and while there are differences in regards to cultural settings with the many variations of the story since, there is a clear link between the Chinese version and the Disney animated feature film: love conquers all. Except there have been writers who have been saying the opposite for years. “Romeo & Juliet”, “Anna Karenina”, hell even the James Cameron-directed, “Titanic”. Now we have, “Anomalisa” to tell us that not only is such a story far-fetched, but in the context of the movie’s main character, there are some people who just can’t seem to make it come true no matter how hard they try. And yet they try. And then they break other people’s hearts.
Except this time, maybe not so much. In this case, we have main character Michael Stone (voice by David Thewlis) who seems physically and mentally crushed by a boring world, voiced in the same drool voice (Tom Noonan does the voices of almost everyone else, and it’s…disturbing) Their flight is boring, their family is boring, the city of Cincinnati is boring, even the angry letter from their past that they mull over is boring, and this a letter from a former lover that they just…left behind. Then after some monotonous mulling about at their hotel and outside of it, they try to reconnect with said lover. It doesn’t go well.
A shower later and suddenly they notice a unique voice that seems to call out from them, and Stone goes out to them. The voice belongs to a woman named Lisa (voice by Jennifer Jason Leigh), and they spend the entire night basically trying to get to know them. Lisa is shy, sensitive, knows how to play the Jew’s Harp, but is skittish about the name, “Because it is offensive to Jews”. So…just an ordinary girl, actually. Yet they of all people awaken a sense of hope within Stone, leading the two knowing each other quite well. And then, well, a very explicit but very tender sex scene happens. No, this is not a repeat of the sex scene from, “Team America: World Police” (hilarious as that movie is). This is something you would not get from Brazzers or, “50 Shades of Grey”. Something that means something, has agency between characters, even has a bit of mutual awkwardness that comes when true intimacy is shared between people.
And then everything goes to shit. Not because of outside forces, but because Stone just can’t seem to relate to people around them. He talks to Lisa about running away from his family to be with her, and then her voice begins to fade into the same wretched monotony Stone has been crushed by for a long time. And then she becomes one of Them. He protests mentally, and even at a speech for customer service that he gives to other colleagues. But nothing works. He breaks down, he tries to do his job, but the despair just doesn’t want to let go. Why can’t he care? Why can’t he stay in love? Why can’t he recreate the excitement, bliss and tenderness he once felt…and once felt before that…and before that…
So, there you have it: a quiet (outside of the sex sequence, that is), methodical destruction of the, “Love Conquers All” narrative, made for a modern era. Stripping away the hope and aspirational window dressing until a redemptive arc is revealed to be little more than the thrashing of a desperate person suffocating under the weight of things that no longer awakens the fire within him. But hey, at least Lisa feels great from the experience regardless, penning an unsent letter to Stone saying that she has never felt love like this before, and hoping that they will see her again soon. In other words, she is at the same position as Stone’s previous lover, only she is happy about it. For now.
If anyone needs me, I will be taking a shower and rethinking my entire life.
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