Supporting characters shine in ‘Anomalisa’

A filmmaker moves main characters, puppets, Michael Stone and Lisa on the bed to create the magic that is 'Anomalisa.' Photo courtesy of The New York Times.
A filmmaker moves main characters, puppets, Michael Stone and Lisa on the bed to create the magic that is ‘Anomalisa.’ Photo courtesy of The New York Times.

I would describe my 13-year-old self as the quintessential middle school outcast. I loved Inuyasha and roleplaying and wore hoodies every day. To make matters worse, my best friend Rachel was a beautiful, outgoing girl with the sweetest smile and a natural way with people. Rachel was never short of friends or boys professing their love for her. I, on the other hand, thought no one would ever take interest in me because I was nerdy, ugly or undesirable. While exciting things happened to the people around me, I felt like I was the supporting character in my own life.

Although Charlie Kaufman’s recent stop motion animated film, Anomalisa, is marketed and received by most as the story of Michael Stone, I posit that the movie is actually the story of Lisa, the bumbling, awkward woman that Michael promptly falls in and out of love with over the course of the film. It takes a little stretch of imagination, but for anyone who has been in the shoes of an insecure middle school girl, it makes perfect sense.

Michael is the successful but dissatisfied author of How May I Help You Help Them?, a best-selling book on customer service. We meet him in the middle of what may either be a depressive episode or a midlife crisis. He is unable to see human beings as individuals, regarding them all as one alien, hive-minded organism, a phenomenon that is manifested in the film in the droning, deadpan voice (played by Tom Noonan) that all of the characters besides Michael and Lisa speak in.

Michael spends the first half of the movie fruitlessly attemptsing to make a connection with anyone within the mass of humanity. He makes dull, forced small talk with his cabbie, bellboy and even his own wife and son. The movie drags its feet through this drudgery until Michael happens to hear Lisa’s unique, miraculous voice. He pursues her doggedly.

This is the first time someone has ever liked Lisa more than her best friend, Emily. In fact, this is the first time she has received any male interest in over eight years.  Used to being a wallflower, routinely ignored because of that natural repulsion people have for the average, Lisa’s self-esteem is  just like a middle school girl’s. She does telephone work because she’s not pretty enough to be hired in a store. Her last boyfriend was 60 years old, and she is older than his daughter. She loves the song “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”  The lyrics touch something in her. “‘I wanna be the one who walks in the sun,’” she says with a sigh, “that describes so perfectly who I wanna be.”

Most of the aesthetic choices in Anomalisa are made so the viewer can see the world through Michael’s eyes. Though the puppet actors are naturalistic, they are obviously puppets, with a visible seam running across their faces at the eye line. Their movements are jerky and robotic. The movie is filled with shots of long hallways and rows of identical doors, desks and windows. Even moments of intense and specific drama where Michael encounters the private lives of the people around him sound exactly the same. A couple yelling profanities at each other in public, a woman opening her hotel room door with a coquettish pose (“I thought you were someone else,” she apologizes) and a man reflexively grabbing his hand on the airplane are all reduced to a cacophony of mechanical, indistinguishable voices.

However, the movie ends with a singular scene of objectivity from which Michael is absent. It shows Lisa, bathed in sunlight, as she pens a letter to Michael that we hear in her own unique voice (it had been replaced by the generic voice after her subtle flaws, like chewing with her mouth open, reveal themselves). When we leave Michael, he is no closer to a solution to his unhappiness at the end of their short-lived affair, but Lisa is strangely at peace. She is not angry at Michael for tossing her aside as quickly as he became enamored with her. Her letter is filled with sympathy and understanding. Although Michael spends the majority of the film unable to treat anyone as an individual, the one person he really sees a person, in one of those mys-terious, fortunate mechanisms of fate, is perhaps the one person who needed it the most.

Lisa, who first reacted to Michael’s advances by asking him if he meant to invite Emily to his room, ends her letter with a post-script: “I looked up ‘anomalisa’ in the Japanese dictionary, and it turns out it means ‘goddess of Heaven.’ Not that I think of myself that way, of course. I just think it’s funny.” Anomalisa is less the story of a self-absorbed man who was unable to connect with any of the strangers he crossed paths with, and maybe more the story of a woman who probed deeply into the inner life of a stranger who made a deep impact on her. Though, of course, she would never cast herself as the main character.

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