So, this post contains spoilers…
Many who’ve trekked through Charlie Kaufman’s dark but strangely touching stop-motion puppet drama Anomalisa have been confounded by the ending. Was Lisa just a psychological fill-in for the sex doll that Michael Stone brought back to his hotel room? Did she even go back to the room with him? Was the whole experience just a dream? If it indeed was all a dream, then that would make for a much more anti climatic takeaway to a film so sincere and compelling in its emotional thrust.
The main conflict in Anomalisa lies in Michael’s deep self loathing and his feelings of alienation, a word, might I add, that’s not used enough in our world of heavily bureaucratized, spiritually monotonous office labor. Michael, like many of the working-middle class in the United States, deals with the intensely humdrum task of customer service. After spending a good portion of the night unsuccessfully trying to hook up with a former flame, Michael recedes back into his inner shell and drinks himself into a stupor. He’s awakened by the voice of Lisa, her voice being unique from all the others. From an audience perspective, we know why Lisa’s voice is unique. It’s the only voice, besides our protagonists, who isn’t voiced by the same actor (a brilliant Tom Noonan whom creepily provides the monotonous deadpan voices of “everyone else”). From Michael’s perspective, Lisa’s “voice” represents perhaps her extremely awkward but refreshing personality. Unlike “everyone else”, Lisa doesn’t appear like any of those other ostentatiously polite doll faces. She seems to carry her emotions and insecurities on her like a sleeve, which is what makes her “voice” stand out so much.
Of course, what we “see”, i.e. the faces and voices of every character in the movie, is really what Michael “sees.” Part of what lies in Anomalisa’s brilliance is how easily it plunges you into the depths of Michael’s existential loneliness. The hotel’s luxuriousness is a facade, a cushioned prison, nothing seems alive.
There are certainly moments in everyone’s lives where they see themselves as the lone fruit in the basket, the independent soul traveling amongst the hoard of seemingly dead-eyed conformist automations which we sometimes call “other people.” It’s very tempting to view people, and by extent society, in such a solipsistic manner. But at the same time, it is perhaps our over-reliance on trying to be different, to satisfy the illusion that it’s all just about me, that renders us to view the world in such a way. Michael is, at the end of day, an extraordinarily narcissistic human being. His obsession with trying to satisfy his own spiritual needs, whatever that may be, comes at the price of failing to communicate properly with both his wife and child, thereby neglecting them. He’s utterly incapable of owning up to any personal responsibility.
Paradoxically, like all great character studies, Anomalisa also depicts Michael as a sort of victim of circumstance. Sure he’s an asshole, but he’s also someone who’s spent his entire life working in an industry where you are essentially an automation, conditioned to interact with other human beings via. a pre-written script. Combined with the fact that Michael is in some ways a celebrity in his industry, one can easily grasp why Michael suffers from severe alienation. The last shot of the film is of Lisa on the road, basking in the optimistic warmth of the sun, smiling, feeling truly at peace that somebody out there appreciates her for who she is, writing a letter to Michael thanking him for the intimate night they had together.
The last shot reveals what Anomalisa is ultimately about: perspective. Michael’s obsession with his own emotional needs is what predominately leads him to narcissistic despair. His inability to see human beings as human beings as opposed to the faceless voices on the other end of a telephone is what renders him cold and alone and unable to form meaningful relationships. If everything was indeed a dream, it would greatly diminish Lisa as a character, marking her as a sort of ideal abstraction rather than an actual character with personal agency. Ultimately, the movie is as much about Lisa as an agent of change as it is about Michael as an agent of change. That Michael is just a cynical cold bastard because, well, he’s a cynical cold bastard doesn’t strike me as very interesting.