Anomalisa (2015)

“Thigh Line (Liar) Triangular”

There’s a remarkable moment early in Anomalisa, Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman’s new animated feature, which resonates with a lecture I give at the start of my course on the history of drama. In “Why Hamlet Doesn’t Go to the Bathroom,” I ponder the deflection of lived human experience entailed by storytelling. One of the reasons we cannot be like Hamlet—in addition to the obvious fact that he is a prince, and most of us are not—is that we are real human beings who spend most of our time grappling with the boring, mundane, and messy necessities of staying alive. For this reason, we do not often face monumental decisions, such as whether or not it is the moral thing to do to kill the king.

Anomalisa is a film in which our dramatic figure—Michael Stone (David Thewlis)—in fact does go to the bathroom. Visually, it is the best scene in the film; narratively, it is crucially placed. Stone has flown late at night from his home in Los Angeles to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he is to give a motivational speech about customer service. After a trying cab ride, he settles into his hotel room for the night. As we observe from outside of the hotel bathroom whose door is open, Michael stands at the toilet urinating. His spread legs and the floor form a triangle; the lighting makes this geometrical shape the image’s most illuminated sector. The triangle is replicated in two other sectors of the image. To the left, the maid has folded the toilet paper into a V, while the hair dryer to his right also forms a triangular shape.

The fact that Anomalisa is an animated film allows us with even more confidence than in a live-action film that the presentation of the material world is not only accidental, but also an artistic act. The filmmakers have, with great care, called our attention to the hotel bathroom, a mundane place we are socially trained to ignore. Narratively, the sequence serves as the preamble to the first turning point of the film. Michael takes a shower, which we also observe in its entirety from outside the open bathroom door. Michael then hears a woman’s voice. It turns out this is Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a fan of his book on customer service and the only other human voice in the film that is not that of actor Tom Noonan.

When Michael hears Lisa’s voice, he exits his hotel room in pursuit of her, following her to her own room. He is stunned she has an individuated voice like his. They return to his room and make love. However, the next morning while they dine on room service breakfast, Michael becomes irked at how Lisa talks with food in her mouth. Tom Noonan’s voice comes to quickly replace Jennifer Jason Leigh’s, now even as Lisa is speaking. Thus ends Michael’s love affair with Lisa. She has returned to the realm of the banal, and thus outside of the parameters of Michael’s desire.

However, Michael’s desire is arrogance incarnate. Michael is nothing other than a boring businessman who stays at the same hotels everyone else does, and whose bodily needs match everyone else around him. While the film pretends Tom Noonan’s voice is the marker of conformity, Kaufman’s ruse is that Michael Stone’s body is the film’s best evidence of banality.

This conclusion is a stunning outcome in the history of drama. In Kaufman’s film directorial debut, Synecdoche, NY (2008), a playwright suffers a personal crisis after successfully staging 1949’s Death of a Salesman, the quintessential 20th century American play which demands that tragedy not only be the stuff of Prince Hamlet, but of everyone else as well. Anomalisa doubles down on this project: at least Willy Loman was able to die a transcendent death, supported by Arthur Miller’s poetic lamentation.

There’s no such excitement in store for Michael Stone. He returns home to his family in Los Angeles, and sits on his stairs, alienated from his son and his wife, who has kindly, and foolishly, thrown him a party. The closest thing to this ending in any other film is Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air (2009) in which George Clooney plays a similar businessman cad, Ryan Bingham. At the end of that film, after tricking himself into believing he has found true love with a woman he’s having an affair with on business trips, he shows up unexpectedly at her home. When she kicks him out of her life, he is devastated.

Anomalisa exposes the sexist chutzpah of these male fantasies. Michael’s solipsism has generated what he deserves, isolation and misery, not cathartic dramatic learning. What is in store for him is only the drudgery of middle-class life. By choosing to aesthetically represent the spaces of such a life, such as hotel bathrooms frequented during business trips, Anomalisa has re-invented American middle-class drama to expose the hollowness of such an existence.

–Walter Metz