Anomalisa (2016)

Final Rating: 10/10

Now that Anomalisa has been released in theaters, I can finally explode like the kind of writer I’ve always strived to be. I have waited months since the Toronto International Film Festival to be able to fully jot down every piece of brilliance this tiny film has to offer, and these aspects are probably a tip of the iceberg of what I’ve missed (even after two watches). 

Existentialist romantic Charlie Kaufman has created a new twisted love story that, as usual, has a different take on how humans can connect. Being John Malovich created love within other beings and self perceptions. Adaptation. displayed a love for yourself, even if it means adoring the crazy bits of you. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind recreated affection through the memories that strengthened what you felt was a failed relationship. Synecdoche, New York (Kaufman’s directorial debut) had love represented through the only person that made sense during a workaholic suicide.  

Anomalisa, a joint effort by Kaufman and animator Duke Johnson, shows human love through a man slowly dying of self loathing that lives a mundane life. Everyone sounds and looks the exact same. Every thing is fake. It is until he hears something he’s never heard before that he was miserable; He finally has hope.



From the very moment this film starts, it’s wonderful. A flurry of voices (all recorded by Tom Noonan) blur your hearing, and you are stuck flying in the clouds. You are fogged visually and audibly. You then feel the claustrophobia you would naturally experience on an air bus. Right off the bat, you understand the depression Michael Stone has. The trick to Anomalisa is that it isn’t a pity party for Stone. Everyone in this movie is looking for appreciation and compassion. On first watch, it looks like Stone’s quest, but you’ll come to realize that everyone is alone. The man in the first scene that grabs Stone’s hand by accident feels the lack of his wife’s presence beside him. Everyone in the airport is either clinging to their family, glued to their phones, or aimlessly staring at Stone. Even the cab driver that drives Stone to his hotel feels forced to make small talk just so the cab ride isn’t quiet. Whoever is not accompanied in this film is experiencing the hurt first hand; Everyone else is temporarily blinded that they don’t have it.

Michael Stone’s past lover Bella appears via a letter and a memory at first, but then Stone tries to get into contact with her. She has longed for him for ten years, but he simply just disappeared. His current wife and child feel like he may as well have disappeared from their lives, as he’s barely present. Stone sees a man masturbating in his office and he, too, must cure his ache for the time being by cueing up an affair with the one he used to love. Bella, too, tried to fix herself but ended up with an abusive partner. On a first watch, Bella and Michael’s interaction is a damaged relationship beyond repair. On further viewing, you can imagine Bella is just like Michael. She views everyone the same way and all is stripped of life. Michael feels he is the only man suffering from a deathly saturated world, but everyone is and he just isn’t coping with it well. 

The catch here is that Michael is in town to give a speech on customer service skills. Michael hears voices all of the time over the phone, and essentially everyone on earth would end up being his customer if time and circumstance permitted it. He fell out of love with Bella, his wife, and eventually even Lisa because everyone loses their uniqueness sometimes. That is, they do if you let them. Michael’s family and friends continue to see their father, husband and buddy despite his lack of interest. One of the few connections Michael makes is with a torn apart Japanese sex machine that is sculpted to look a specific way and programmed to sound the same way each time it is activated. This man made art piece cannot be misconstrued as another deception of Michael’s nightmare.

Lisa has a similar reaction to Michael when they first meet. She gets worried that she will lose the one shot at joy she has. She shies away so she cannot become a weirdo, but a weirdo is what Michael needs to escape mediocrity. Michael is voiced by David Thewlis and Lisa by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Virtually everyone else is Tom Noonan’s voice in a monotone stale murmur. This includes the sprinkled background voices, the dialogue on television and even singers in songs. This isn’t as off putting as it looks on paper, because his robotic voice kind of blends well as a wind of societal ambience. Nonetheless, Michael loves Lisa’s voice and Lisa love Michael’s professionalism. Lisa has barely been in love and Michael has forgotten what love is. Lisa feels inadequate next to her friend Emily (who appears as Noonan’s typical self to Michael). She isn’t overly bright, she has a scar over her right eye and she is too self aware. 

Everyone experiences loneliness. That’s why Anomalisa is a stop motion puppet film. We all have pieces of our face (or masks) that we place together to mimic the emotions that are expected of us by others. We feel isolation and desolation often. Lisa is fixed on Cyndi Lauper because of her ability to let go and not care what others think, but Lauper’s persona is simply that. Everyone here is frozen in time but shoved through many still moments to seem animated; A push forwards that no one is truly ready for. The animation is gorgeous and is some of the best stop motion animation in years. You may forget this is even hand animated at times, as it comes off more as CGI made to look like clay. The faces almost look like dramatic masks that have come to life. 

These “animatronic” faces play into some of the meta moments of the film: When Michael’s face starts spastically coasting through faces in the mirror, when his lower half of his face falls off and even when other characters stare blankly as if they’ve stopped being animated. We are reminded again and again that this is an animated film, and yet we will fall back into its clever illusion. As dark as this film is, it’s also viciously hilarious and is easily the funniest film of the year. Much of the humor comes from us laughing at Michael’s misfortunes, the humdrum ways of the world around him and even these weird moments that only work within an animated film. This metaphysical referencing leaks into the most depressing part of the film: When Lisa turns into one of “them”. Her voice gets over taken by Noonan’s, her face is blocked out by the sun, and eventually she transforms into one of the nightmarish androids entirely. Again, this couldn’t have been done with live action film making (not this well anyways).

Anomalisa is about finding that someone and them losing them again and again. This is just one instance where Michael truly felt that he had found the one this time around. When he goes insane during his speech, he speaks to himself in and out of his written components. He needs guidance, and ironically, as a customer service operator, he needs to be heard during his cry for help. His eyes loop awkwardly (another meta moment) and he sifts between what the world wants to hear and what he wants the world to hear. He is trapped, because the special oddity he saw in Lisa disappeared once he became used to her. He tells his guests to notice what is an important quality in all of their callers, but he cannot do that with those he is most intimate with.

Michael’s son is worried that his dad is leaving at the end of the film, but Michael says that he doesn’t even know where he’d go; He is trapped. The odd thing is that Michael has already left, and he left a very long time ago. Everyone else is lifeless, but it was Michael that disappeared. He disappeared into the horizon of schizophrenic voices, browns and greys of the city and the pale eyed stares of the world. We end on Lisa’s open letter after having started on Bella’s confrontational letter. In Lisa’s letter, she mentions that anomarisa means “Goddess of heaven” in Japanese, and this is an ever lasting quality that Lisa may (or may not) keep in the back of her mind for the rest of her life. Michael’s back to the fog, but Lisa’s world has opened up.

Anomalisa is plagued by stunning music, whether it be the lounge music at the bar Michael is cemented in or the ambient sinking that drops the emotional moments into a spiral of despair. Almost every set is amber and brown in tone, and the world around Michael is a mud puddle that swirls into itself. The voice acting of everyone involved is top notch: Thewlis is pained, Jason Leigh is calmingly nervous and Noonan can even evoke emotions out of you without emotions in his own voice. This film houses one of the best scenes of the year (when Michael arrives home and you truly feel sympathetic for the robots around him as Michael is the most lifeless person there). This film has the best writing of the year. This film simply is the best of the year, and it’s one of the top films of this decade (easily). It is organic in its laughs, whispers, depressions and anguishes. 

Again, I probably haven’t even scratched the surface of this film, and this is probably the longest and most in depth review I have ever done over a single film. The only shame is that we may never have a film quite like Anomalisa again, but we won’t let her go like Michael did.

About author

Former Film Editor & Music Writer at Live in Limbo. Co-host of the Capsule Podcast. A Greek/South African film enthusiast. He has recently earned a BFA honours degree in Cinema Studies at York University. He is also heavily into music, as he can play a number of instruments and was even in a few bands. He writes about both films and music constantly. You should follow him on Twitter @Andreasbabs.