In his famous commencement address to Kenyon College, This Is Water, David Foster Wallace suggests that we consider the real, lived humanity of all the people we interact with, even tangentially. Or maybe that’s putting it too strongly; he suggests that we have the choice to consider the lives behind these anonymous faces around us. Near the end of Charlie Kaufman’s latest film, Anomalisa, customer-service guru Mark Stone (David Thewlis) suggests something similar in his keynote speech to a convention audience in Cincinnati, or at least he tries to.
Wallace made his suggestion in the context of a commencement address. He didn’t shy away from the darker alternatives as much as his popularizers do, but his message was essentially hopeful: the benefit of an education is the ability to make the choice about what to consider. Kaufman, on the other hand, steers directly into the existential horror of alienation: what if someone lost the ability to differentiate between all the Others around him?
It starts out subtly, but we soon become aware that everyone around Mark has the same voice (Tom Noonan), and even the same face. At first it seems to capture a sense of oppression familiar to introverts. It’s the end of a travel day, which is already draining being surrounded so long and so closely by so many other people. The person in the next seat on the plane, the talkative taxi driver, the hotel concierge who creepily doesn’t have to look down at his computer to check you into a room; all of them start blending together into an undifferentiated Other that feels like it’s about to consume you.
But it pushes further. When Mark calls home from his room, his wife and son have the same voice. Mark looks up an old flame still living in the city, and she does too. And so when he hears a different voice outside his room, he’s bound to fall in love with this Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who looks and sounds unlike anyone else around him.
The convention is being held in the Fregoli hotel, which shares its name with a particular delusion that results when a brain’s facial recognition circuits go awry. Sufferers come to believe that different people are really just a single person changing a disguise. The name ultimately comes from an Italian actor renowned for his quick costume changes, and Kaufman’s original stage play must certainly have involved a lot of them; in the film he uses stop-motion animation instead, which makes the illusion all the more convincing.
It’s possible that Mark is literally suffering from this malady, but it the particulars matter less than the results: he feels increasingly alienated from everyone around him, and clings desperately to any anomaly in that pattern. Setting the story in 2005 sets up all kinds of psychic echoes. Lots of us back then were wondering if it was us or just everyone else who had gone crazy, and the effect must have been that much stronger for a transplanted Englishman like Mark.
As always, Kaufman’s work is distinctly weird, and reflects his own very peculiar sense of humor. For it to work, it has to be taken on Kaufman’s terms, and many people are going to walk into the theater unprepared to do that. But those who are willing to look past the weirdness to understand what the weirdness is about will find themselves rewarded for the effort.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.