Pulling Strings: Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s Anomalisa

Charlie Kaufman wrote the screenplay for what I believe is a perfect film: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It remains one of the only films that I immediately watched again after it ended the first time. He also wrote and directed Synecdoche, New York, another film that’s very high on my favorites list. I saw the trailer for Anomalisa and was instantly excited to see it.

The first half hour of Anomalisa is funny and fantastic. It’s filled with mundane, meaningless interactions and conversations that everyone has to trudge through in order to survive in the world, and it works perfectly as an introduction to the main character, Michael Stone. The decision to have every character (except Lisa) be voiced by Tom Noonan is effective in establishing how similar everyone is in Michael’s world, and how their personalities are all the same to him. I also really like the conflict between the main character becoming famous for writing a book about communicating in customer service, but he can’t connect or communicate with people outside of this.

Unfortunately, the relationship between Lisa and Michael seems really rushed and fast. I feel like a lot of this film has been edited down to match the length of an average animated film. Maybe there was pressure by the production company to narrow it down or something, but there seems to be a lot missing based on the pacing of the film.

I’m really getting tired of seeing the same Manic Pixie Dream Girl character trope in every independent film. Why do filmmakers (esp. independent filmmakers, for whatever reason) make their female leads out to be these mythical creatures who are full of wonderment? Constant, unwavering delight and ‘quirk,’ — women whose bubbly/optimistic personalities promise to take the cynical male character away from their pessimism. It’s simplistic and offensive for both the male and female characters: it implies that the male character needs a woman to change them, and it implies that the female character’s main purpose is to ‘fix’ the male character and adjust their personality. The ‘uniqueness’ of the MPDG always seems so contrived to me; in actuality, these female characters are all written to be essentially the same person in every film (e.g. Garden State, Almost Famous, Elizabethtown).

It seems like Michael suddenly switches and becomes unsympathetic at a certain point in the film without having previously established these characteristics, or implying any sort of motivation for why he’s suddenly acting this way. It seems like there just needed to be more conflict between them, so they added that in without any reasoning for his behavior. Also, she’s strangely accepting of his shift in suddenly acting this way toward her, and doesn’t even bother to understand why he’s acting the way he is. She just blames his behavior on herself because she’s really insecure I guess? It seemed like they just didn’t really bother with development of the two main characters.

Anomalisa was, despite the use of “anomaly” in the title and throughout the film, pretty average in terms of basic storytelling. I was really expecting to fall in love with it, but I was disappointed by the quality of writing in the second and third acts of the film. His writing was the main reason I wanted to see the film in the first place. A lot of the dialogue wasn’t as subtle or beautiful as the type for which he’s become famous. The animation was fantastic and the set pieces were all great, but the main problem was with the story.

Kaufman didn’t really allow the themes to stand on their own through the actions of the characters or through any particular visual language like he has in his previous films. Characters were constantly reiterating the themes of the film through blatant dialogue like, “Who am I? Who are you? Who is anybody?” Maybe this is because the film wasn’t really supposed to be made and was originally a radio play, so the dialogue previously had to be obvious in order to convey the themes without the help of any visual representation. Still, though, average writing is average writing.

I don’t really feel like this film requires additional viewings like I’ve felt with his previous films. Maybe I’ll watch it again someday, but I didn’t really feel drawn to it. It was questionable why he was even drawn to her as a character, because it seemed to me like she was as insecure and neurotic as his previous girlfriends and wasn’t really that much of a deviation or an anomaly. He was really just drawn to her because she sang a quirky song and had a scar on her face, which I guess is supposed to make her more interesting.

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About Natalie Jones

Natalie Jones has work published in print at Amoskeag Literary Journal, and online at Eunoia Review, Gambling the Aisle, The Rusty Nail Literary Magazine, and Haiku Journal.

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