Over his 20-year career, Charlie Kaufman has put together quite a pantheon of sad sacks—but Michael Stone, the protagonist of Anomalisa, has to be the saddest.
Gray-haired and pudgy, Michael (David Thewlis) lives a stultifying life of crowded flights, chintzy hotel rooms, and convention speaking gigs at which he advertises his guide for improving the customer service industry. A permanent paroxysm of boredom, his life has lost all purpose, all direction.
Everybody Michael encounters—from sex shop owners to young children to actors in black-and-white movies—has become so mundane in his mind that they all physically resemble the same bland, milquetoast white man and share the same flat, monotonous voice (played in the film by Tom Noonan—it’s worth noting here that all the characters are played by puppets with startlingly unemotive faces).
Everything is vanity, all is vanity, until Michael hears something in a Cincinnati hotel hallway he hasn’t heard in years: a different voice.
The voice belongs to Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an ordinary woman who happens to be a fan of Michael’s work. They spend an evening together, sleep together, and the next morning, over breakfast, begin to plan to run away together. But as they maneuver the specifics of Michael’s divorcing his wife over breakfast, he begins to order Lisa around: stop clacking your fork against your teeth; stop chewing with your mouth open.
And to his horror, Lisa’s voice begins to disappear and be replaced with the same voice as everyone else in the world. In a fit of despair and self-loathing, Michael breaks their relationship, has a nervous breakdown while speaking at a convention, and returns to his deadened domestic life.
Anomalisa is the clearest example of the narrative Kaufman returns to over and over in every screenplay he writes: a three-act structure wherein the protagonist goes on a quest for fulfillment, achieves it, and then sabotages it. In Being John Malkovich, John Cusack gets both his dream job as world-famous puppeteer and the woman he idolizes only to become a powerless, trapped soul because of his neurotic obsession with his sociopathic wife.
There’s much more. Tim Robbins gets his human specimen and scientific fame in Human Nature only to lose it all and eventually get killed over his inability to come to terms with his affections for Patricia Arquette. In Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Sam Rockwell gets hit television shows but is undone by his hedonic lifestyle; in Adaptation, Nicholas Cage figures out his screenplay but loses his twin brother.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind lets Jim Carrey find love in Kate Winslet but dooms them both to repeating a possibly endless cycle of falling in and out of love. Philip Seymour Hoffman creates his ultimate masterpiece as a theater director, only to lose his family and eventually himself to it in Synecdoche, New York.
Kaufman’s stories repeatedly suggest that humans are slaves to their innate flaws. Puppets are a central metaphor for him, most explicitly in the puppeteering protagonist of Being John Malkovich and the stop-motion puppets of Anomalisa. As humans, Kaufman suggests, we may think we are in control of our actions, but our strings are actually being tugged by forces beyond us: some from within, some from without.
Does the world make Michael miserable in Anomalisa or is the world merely a projection of his own misery? Where is the room for individual choice, individual will? Do they even exist at all?