Charlie Kaufman’s newest film, Anomalisa, is not for everyone. I don’t mean that in an exclusive, some “get” it and others don’t, kind of way. I mean that the the film is a very real (ironic considering it consists entirely of stop-motion animation) depiction of the dislocation and alienation that pervades modern existence, and I predict that even the most optimistic among us will leave the the theater with his 32 oz. cup of Cherry Coke half empty. But wait! Kaufman’s bleak and banal picture of reality may be difficult to watch, but for those willing to endure the dark night of the (puppet’s) soul, it is without a doubt worth the 90 minutes.

Anomalisa tells the story of Michael Stone, played by David Thewlis, an author and customer service expert who flies to Cincinnati to speak about his book, “How May I Help You Help Them.” Despite the book’s title, it is evident, as the story unfolds, that Stone himself is the one in need of help.

Upon arriving in Cincinnati, Michael checks into a hotel called The Fregoli. There is, in fact, no actual hotel called The Fregoli in Cincinnati, but there is something called The Fregoli Delusion, which is described as “a rare psychiatric disorder in which a person holds the delusional belief that different people are in fact a single person in disguise.” Whether or not Michael suffers from this disorder is not clear, but his struggle is the same regardless. Other people, to Michael, are not individuals with their own hopes, dreams, aches, and pains, but merely a projection from the solipsistic prison of his own mind. (I don’t want to give too much away about how this struggle manifests itself in the film, but those who have seen Being John Malkovich might have an idea of what they have in store).

anomlia 7

In his much anticipated speech, Michael asks his reverent audience, “What is it to be human? What is it to ache? What is it to be alive? Each person you speak to has had a day. Some of the days have been good, some bad. Each person you speak to has had a childhood. Each has a body… Look for what is special about each individual. Focus on that.” Michael, however, is utterly incapable of following his own advice.

Enter Lisa.

Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a customer service representative for a baked goods company who has driven all the way to Cincinnati to hear Michael speak. She is also staying at The Fregoli, and when Michael hears her talking to a friend outside of his room, he is enamored by the sound of her voice. Up until this point in the film, every character other than Michael has been played by Tom Noonan (Manhunter, Last Action Hero), who speaks with a dull and monotonous voice throughout, so the sound of Lisa’s voice is as much of a gift to the viewer as it is to Michael. Eager to see the face of the woman with such a unique voice, Michael frantically stumbles from door to door until he finds her.

Lisa is supposed to be underwhelming. She is awkward, clumsy, and self-deprecating, but she is different from every other character in the film. Michael falls in love, for it is specifically these imperfections that point to the presence of an individual human being, completely separate from himself and his delusional projections. An anomaly!


For a while it seems like Lisa is Michael’s salvation. Out of nowhere, and through no effort of his own, Lisa frees Michael from his monotonous and self-absorbed existence. She is an anomaly in a world that offered little to the wayfaring Michael Stone. Unfortunately for Michael [SPOILER ALERT], their love is doomed to fail. Within a few hours, the very imperfections that Michael found intriguing become irksome. He berates her for chewing with her mouth open, and, before she finishes her eggs and bacon, it is clear that their love affair was as momentary as it was rapturous.

Kaufman’s film may not be the most hopeful depiction of humanity, but it is honest. We are all Michael at times. Even if we know, in theory, that we are not the star of the show, we all fall victim to the temptation to become the protagonist of our own delusional and selfish drama. Anomalisa, if nothing else, forces us to acknowledge our own weakness and to hope for a less ephemeral and more redemptive anomaly.