Anomalisa, written by Charlie Kaufman (who wrote Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, amongst others) and directed by Kaufman and Duke Johnson (best known for directing Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas on Community) can be described in a number of ways.
It is a film about a man named Michael. It is a comedy. It is a tragedy. It is a fantasy and an allegory. It is the most artificial film of 2015. It is, with the possible exceptions of The Big Short and Spotlight, the most raw and real film of 2015. It is, perhaps most importantly to the moviegoing public, the first R-Rated film to ever be nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards.
It’s also a film inextricably tied up in its relationship to depression. The film is, despite the intentionally offputting and unreal looking animation, one the most intensely realistic depictions of depression in cinema. And over the course of this article, I hope to demonstrate how Anomalisa addresses both depression and how it deconstructs one of the most annoyingly common tropes in romantic fiction, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
But I get ahead of myself. And before we move on, I should inform you, that I’m going to be breaking Anomalisa down scene by scene. If you haven’t seen it yet, and have any intention to, you should probably wait until you’ve seen it. But, if you don’t want to, or have already seen it and want a more detailed breakdown, read on.
Anomalisa begins with Michael Stone (David Thewlis) a self-help author on his way to Cincinnati to give a talk at a customer service conference. But Michael is distant and treats everyone around him oddly. Why? Because he perceives everyone around him as the same person, the same generic faced white man, voiced placidly by Tom Noonan (including, hilariously, a moment where Noonan sings The Flower Duet).
This is already a brilliant metaphor for depression, demonstrating how depression can suck the color and life from the world. Noonan is a fantastic choice for this extremely odd role, his placid voice always seeming curiously devoid of emotion, even when acting out an enraged letter from Michael’s jilted former lover Bella.
It also gives a great demonstration of the alienating effect of depression. Michael has trouble forming lasting relationships or relating to his peers, because he can never tell them apart. When he calls said jilted ex, he can’t recognize her voice, because her voice sounds like everyone else’s, and he can’t seem to read her emotions, to see how she’s reacting to him when he starts coming on to her. His depression is weighing him down, keeping him from forming bonds with other people, and he’s unable or unwilling to go after Bella when she storms out.
Dejected and alone, Michael goes out in search of a toy store, to purchase something for his son (who, in case you were wondering, is also voiced by Tom Noonan). Due to his cab driver misunderstanding him, the store he actually winds up at is a sex shop. There he is entranced by a vintage Japanese sex doll. This may seem small, but it will come back later, trust me.
So we’ve already established how the film is a metaphor for depression, how Noonan’s placid emotionless voice represents a world on mute from Michael’s inability to escape his depression and how it’s affecting his relationships, damaging his ability to relate to other people and making it hard for him to read social cues. The film could have continued on this line of thinking throughout and come out the other end a smart and interesting film. But it doesn’t. Because at this point is when Lisa enters the film.
It is impossible to overstate Lisa’s importance to the narrative. She is essentially the title character (Michael declares her an anomaly, which leads to the portmanteau Anomalisa). She is also the only character in the film, aside from Michael, who is not voiced by Tom Noonan and who has a unique face. And she is also a fantastic deconstruction of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype.
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a term coined by Nathan Rabin is his review of Elizabethtown (a film which contains as pure and unironic example of the archetype as I’ve ever seen on film). It describes a type of girl who seems to only exist to force introverted male characters in sappy, simplistic romance films to journey outside of their bubble. There are typically a series of markers that identify a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in film: A conventionally attractive young white girl, with a slightly offbeat hairstyle or dress style, an interest in quirky, slightly alternative media and a complete devotion to making the damaged male lead feel better about himself.
This is one of the more frustrating archetypes in film, and it’s one that, in my opinion, Kaufman has been fighting against since before the movie that gave its name existed. Indeed, as far back as Kaufman’s first film, Being John Malkovich, there were moments that seemed to subvert this archetype. Early in the film, the lead (a seemingly sensitive puppeteer played by John Cusack) becomes enamored with a female coworker, played by Catherine Keener. He has barely learned her name before he’s asking her out to drinks and confessing his love, and seems completely convinced she’s going to save him from his depressing everyday life.
Keener’s character however, is caustic, sarcastic, manipulative and seems far more interested in proxy sleeping with the lead’s wife (it’s complicated, just watch the movie). Cusack remains enamored with her and his desperate attempts to win her drive his increasingly erratic and vile behavior. To say more would be to spoil an incomparably brilliant movie.
However, while Being John Malkovich subtly takes jabs at this archetype, which was already beginning to form in the late 90s, Kaufman’s later work Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind contains a far more direct condemnation. Eternal Sunshine revolves around the lead’s attempt to erase his ex, Clementine (played by Kate Winslet), from his memory, with their relationship being revealed piecemeal in flashback.
At the midpoint, when the film begins to show us the beginning of the relationship proper and the main character Joel (played by Jim Carrey) begins to pursue Clementine (Kate Winslet), in earnest, she directly calls out the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype. She says that men are always pursuing her because they think she’ll solve all their problems or make them happy, but she’s got her own baggage to deal with and she doesn’t, and can’t, exist entirely for his happiness. Her pursues her nonetheless, and it’s heavily implied that his unrealistic expectations for her in their relationship contributed to their eventual breakup.
Anomalisa‘s condemnation of the archetype is more subtle, but in the end no less explicit. The first moment when I realized where the movie was going with Lisa’s character, at least in this regard, was early in her screen time. After taking Lisa and her friend out for drinks, he invites Lisa back to his room. There, he discovers the reason why Lisa has been surreptitiously covering half of her face during all of their interactions; She has an extremely nasty scar along one side of her face.
Michael attempts not to be non-plussed by this, even offering to kiss it for her, and while she rejects this overture, she does wind up rambling about it, specifically how she doesn’t date often, and the only person who she has dated, dated her because he assumed she would have low standards. Additionally we, the audience, never get the backstory for how she got the scar and neither does Michael.
The message behind all of this is subtle, but unmistakable. Michael offering to kiss her scar is such a typical attempt to show how sensitive he is, by overlooking her painful injury, but the scar is not just a device to show how sensitive Michael is. It is a very real part of her, that has changed who she is and how people interact with her. By extension, she is not a prop to make Michael feel better, she is a real person, a lonely but clearly hopeful and kind person, who needs just as much support as Michael does. Support Michael is, in his current state, utterly unable to give her.
In the morning, after they have sex, and a very odd dream where he imagines all of the people except for him and Lisa as something of a hive mind (a scene I’ve got several interpretations of, but none of which are worth going into) Michael awakes and proposes that he leave his wife and run away with Lisa. She seems slightly offput by it, because it is an odd thing to propose, but she seems to go along.
But, during breakfast, something odd begins to happen. Some of Lisa’s small, personal habits begin to annoy Michael. These are small things, but they bother him and the way the scene is edited and shot draws attention to that. As this happens, Lisa’s face and voice begin to distort, until finally, at the end of the scene, she too has Noonan’s voice and the same face as everyone else.
This is already an incredibly real scene just on the face of it. I’m sure most people have been on one side or the other of this scene, the thrill of early love being deflated by the realities of closeness and intimacy. But that belies a quieter relevance to the wider theme of depression throughout the film
When your depressed, there are moments when you feel like you’re recovering or are regaining your ability to be happy, especially when you encounter someone or something that makes you happy. But, almost inevitably, these moments fade. The happiness you felt when you do something you enjoy or when you’re with someone you love fades, leaving you back where you were before, only worse because the joy you felt when you did those things has been sucked out. And this film’s almost portrayal of that moment, over the course of a single scene is so devastating that I nearly cried.
After his speech, during which he breaks down and begins babbling semi-coherently about the government and how awful the world is, Michael returns home alone. He is greeted by his wife and son, the latter of whom asks what he brought back for him. It turns out that Michael purchased the sex doll from earlier, which surprises his son, and disgusts his wife. This is a very brief moment, showing how Michael’s illness and his subsequent inability to relate to other people damage his relationship, but the scene isn’t over yet.
Michael’s wife has planned a surprise party for his return, but as he looks over the people in his house, he admits he cannot recognize any of them. For one brief moment, he admits his illness, admits there is something he needs help with, and his wife immediately reframes it in how it’s damaging her party and storms out. People, you see, have trouble understanding depression if they haven’t experienced it themselves and often have trouble understanding or responding to cries for help.
The scene ends with Michael sitting, alone and dejected, staring at the sex doll, in a scene that would have been the bleakest ending in cinema since No Country for Old Men if it weren’t for the next scene. The film cuts to Lisa and her friend returning home, while Lisa writes Michael a letter. This is clearly intended to parallel the letter Michael was reading and obsessing over from his previous lover in earlier in the film, but while that letter was full of anger and defensiveness, this letter is wistful and sad but hopeful that one day they will see each other again.
After this the camera, which had been focused on Lisa, focuses on her friend driving, and it is revealed that she has her own face, unique from both Lisa’s and the constant Tom Noonan face. There is a world outside Michael’s illness, outside of his sadness and loneliness, but it is a world Michael cannot reach. As long as Michael is depressed, he will continue to be alone at his own party, staring at an animatronic woman singing Momotaro.
Anomalisa was always an unlikely candidate to win Best Animated Feature at the Academt Awards. The film is too strange and the Academy too fond of Pixar (remember the year that Ratatouille, a fine enough film in it’s own right, beat Persepolis? I do.) But its existence as the first R-Rated film nominated for Best Animated Picture, is a sign that it is worth seeing, and it is pushing animation forward. And I think, in a few years, it will be recognized as one of the truly important animated films. There are other things worth discussing, such as how the single face/voice element ties into the recurring theme of Customer Service that pops up regularly into the film, or the regular references to the Fregoli Delusion, but I think I need to end this article here.
“Each person you speak to has had a day, some of the days have been good, some bad, but they’ve all had one. Each person you speak to has had a childhood. Each has a body, each body has aches. Look for what is special about each individual, focus on that.”