Let me be clear: I don’t enjoy walking out of a movie and thinking, “Men are so simplistic.”
This line of thinking leads to wariness, distrust, and reading a year’s worth of books written by women. That’s not good, none of it.
So when a movie like Anomalisa immediately triggers this ragged, feral response as soon as I exit, it seems only fair to interrogate my reaction.
Anomalisa is a dangerously mediocre movie with a spectacular gimmick, namely, a world like ours, but constructed from animated puppetry. Fine. That’s all well and good, and the artistry in the film is extremely lovely. But all this attention to craft and detail is meaningless when it’s merely in service to a narrative that is so unremarkable as to be threatening.
Here’s a question: how can mediocrity in film, in this film, be dangerous and threatening?
Anomalisa grinds through the motions of a very old trope, perhaps hoping to say something new solely through its unexpected medium. That trope is this: man is lost, very-special-woman comes into man’s life at opportune time, man finds joy of living again.
Anomalisa very clearly seeks to resolve the imbalances inherent in this narrative structure by including a resolution in which [SPOILER] its beleaguered middle-aged man protagonist has a prolonged, striking realization that the very-special-woman is, in fact, no more special or life-altering than the wife he’s got at home. This revelation is naturally presented as being something GREAT and NOVEL and EARTH-SHATTERING within the universe of this sad little man. Golly gee whiz, women are people too. To quote the titular Lisa herself, “Who’d a thunk it?”
The mechanism through which Anomalisa illustrates the sameness of all women, and in contrast, the idiosyncratic difference of Lisa, is pretty nifty, if not a lukewarm sip of misogy-tea (yeah, you like that one?). All the characters in the film are voiced by one guy, except for the male protagonist and Lisa. Then, as Mr. Moody-Middle-Aged-Dude starts having doubts about the specialness of our very-special-woman Lisa, her sweetly insecure female voice blends with the singular male voice that populates their whole world until eventually, Lisa speaks with the same male voice as all the other characters.
This is a very interesting, clever technique, but then it culminates in that hackneyed, always ever male epiphany that “Soylent Green is–whoops! Women is people!” We get a final scene [SPOILER] in which Mr. Man returns home to an unexpected party, has a tense encounter with his wife, then sits sad-sack on the stairs and listens to the lovely female singing voice of the Japanese sex toy torso he’s gifted to his son. It’s bad enough the film ends with this sad little puppet man finding the woman’s voice he’s so longed for in a mechanical toy; why’s she gotta be Asian and missing half her body too? I mean, JFC, didn’t Laura Mulvey teach us anything about fragmenting female characters back in the ’70s? Yup, tits, a torso, and a head really affecting a man with her melody. Gosh, that is a real revelation. Nice one, guys
It’s easy to posit that the very-special-woman (VSW, if you like a good acronym) is a variation on that really beloved, cherished archetype: the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG). It’s easy to posit this because it’s fucking true. Enough has been written about that bullshit already, so here, let me suggest a “feminist” reading of Anomalisa:
What if Anomalisa is a commentary on how men, men who self-identify as Very-Important-Men within the confines of their own skulls, need to acknowledge the discrete existence of others, particularly women? Maybe Anomalisa is saying, “Hey dudes, take your heads from out your asses and see that women are individuals, with their own interior lives, their own desires, their own memories, their own conflated senses of being? You know, they’re actually kind of just like you.”
If that’s the case, then why can’t we see Anomalisa as a cautionary tale about viewing oneself as the center of the universe, and occasionally deigning to invite a woman in?
This is an impossible reading. Absolutely, 100% impossible.
Why’s that? Because we never find out what Michael Stone–that’s the Everyman protagonist, and that’s a problem, which is why I’ve chosen not to use his name until now–we never find out what Michael Stone chooses to do with his revelation, his dark, secret knowledge that the very-special-woman is not a gateway into the greatest depths of himself. Michael never makes the connection between Lisa turning into everybody else (in evidence with her great voice shift), and Lisa being an individual like himself. For that matter, Michael never makes the leap that everyone, literally EVERYONE you meet, is an individual, much like yourself.
And for that reason, and because by film’s end Michael is a sad slump of a man listening to a mechanical toy crank out its woman’s voice, a man who has never managed to view other people as anything other than set-pieces in the crushing mundanity of his own universe, Anomalisa fails to say anything new. It reinforces shitty old tropes without ever challenging its protagonist to do something with the knowledge he’s acquired. He sits there, stewing in his own miserable existence, and we are meant to identify with how hard, how soul-killingly hard it is to be alive in the world.
Look, it’s really fucking hard to be a person alive in the world. Anyone who’s made it past twenty-two, twenty-three knows that, and knows it well. But you know what makes it even harder? Pretending that you’re the only person alive who’s worth a goddamn cent. Yeah, I know this movie is based on that one time Charlie Kaufman read this Wikipedia article, and thought, “Hey, you know who would do a really great job turning my play into a movie? Notorious sad sack narcissist Dan Harmon. Ya bro, we should totally do it!”
Well you know what? Women don’t get to have the luxury of long-winded existential crises on film. We don’t get to make movies about our sad little lives and the revelation that all people are individual living, breathing entities. We don’t get to do that because we put our fucking pants on one leg at a time and get to work. And while you’re whining about the misery of life, we’re busy taking that shit, turning it into art that has something worthwhile to say, and then spending our whole lives trying to convince someone, anyone to take a look and see if they can’t maybe, just maybe, relate to what we’re saying.
So you guys have a lot of money and resources and you decided to make this. Great, just great. If this is your reality, that’s totally cool. Make a movie about it, say something about it, do something about it.
But please. Just please show us that you’ve learned something. Show us a little introspection, maybe even a little growth. Then we’ll go easy on you because, after all, we’re only human too.