Michael Stone, the aptly named protagonist of Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman’s animated drama Anomalisa, is greying at the temples, but he still has not learned the essential fact about himself: that he is incapable of intimacy. This lack of self-knowledge has enabled a long career of breaking hearts, as he has striven to overcome his loneliness by having affairs.
The inability to love is not in itself a crime; it is a shortcoming, perhaps a tragic one. What is culpable is ignoring the evidence in the shattered lives around oneself. When Michael, a charismatic speaker, lands in Cincinnati for a presentation on customer relations (!), he phones a former lover to meet him in the bar. When she arrives, she tells him she spent a year in bed after he left her, flattened by the shock and hurt of his sudden disappearance. This does not stop Michael from hinting that perhaps she would like to come upstairs to his room. She would not.
He has better luck with Lisa, a customer relations specialist who has traveled to Cincinnati to hear him speak and is staying at the hotel. Convinced that she is unattractive because of a scar on her temple, which she hides behind a curtain of hair, Lisa is tickled pink by Michael’s attentions, and willingly enough goes to bed with him, expecting nothing more.
To Michael’s credit, he is keenly sensitive to sound; in the first sequence of the film, he negotiates the airport in earbuds, listening to an aria sung by Joan Sutherland. Except the voice is not Joan Sutherland’s, but the monotonous male voice in which everyone speaks in Michael’s world.
Anomalously, Lisa speaks like a woman, a vulnerable human being open to happiness, a person who can be thrilled by scrambled eggs for breakfast. When he hears her voice, Michael is smitten, or thinks he is. The morning after their tryst, he astonishes her by saying he wants to spend the rest of his life with her, that his wife and son are nothing.
At that very moment, the spell is broken. Suddenly he cannot abide her table manners, or anything about her. It is over before it has begun.
Lisa, whose soul is full, will recover, but this episode would appear to be Michael’s last delusional attempt to become a real boy through the enchantments of romantic love. After a disastrous, rambling presentation at the customer service convention—a classic crack-up scene—he flies home to his wife and son. She tells him she does not want him to leave. He answers, “Where would I go?”
It is a question he needs to answer. They would both be better off if he took an apartment somewhere and found a job in a music store. Perhaps he could adopt a dog.
Michael’s character is voiced by the marvelous David Thewlis and Lisa’s by the ever-susceptible Jennifer Jason Leigh. The characters are embodied by puppets that show the seams between their parts, suggesting the fragility of their identities: a chunk of Michael’s face falls off during his breakdown at the hotel. Lisa’s scar, like her voice, signals that she is made of flesh, that her substance has remained organic, unlike the others in Michael’s world, who are calcified by pain and boredom. Or at least that is how he perceives them.