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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton




Directed by Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman (2015)

At its more sophisticated levels, rather than dictating a crude rote script (‘would you like fries with that?’ ‘Have a nice day!’), the discipline of customer service charges staff with assessing and addressing the individual needs of each customer, even before they’ve asked for something.

One of the ironies of Anomalisa is that although Michael Stone (David Thewlis) is a moderately celebrated customer service guru he cannot, to his great dismay, tell people apart.

Aside from his latest love interest, all the other characters in this stop-animation puppet film are voiced by one actor (Tom Noonan), and, unlike whoever T S Eliot had in mind when he was writing The Wasteland, he doesn’t ‘do the police in different voices’.

With only a slight change in pitch to denote gender, everyone speaks in the same monotonous tone, the tone of bad customer service. Is this a satire on a modern world in which individuality has blurred into a drone? Or is there something wrong with Stone?

Anomalisa’s turning point comes as he steps out of his hotel room shower and he suddenly, inexplicably at first, yells “Somebody Else!” He has caught the sound of a different voice in the corridor and hurriedly dresses and starts knocking on other doors on his floor under cover of “looking for a friend”.

Eventually, he finds Lisa, who is not only an anomaly but, luckily, a fan. She’s in town to hear him give one of his motivational speeches to customer service professionals. Several cocktails and a raid on the mini-bar later, they’re shagging.

At this sensitive point, I ought to remind you we’re watching puppets having sex here. How you react to that is probably a very personal thing, but Anomalisa would be a quite different film if there were real human beings, or rather actors, on the screen.

The puppetry is painstakingly realistic – the hairs on Stone’s neck riffle in the breeze from the aeroplane air-con – yet we are constantly reminded the puppets are not human. You can see the join where the faces have been stuck on, the bodies move awkwardly, and they are strangely out of proportion.

The extra effort you have to make to suspend your disbelief means you attend much harder to what’s going on (not a lot happens), and you are more sensitive to the ‘emotions’ the puppets display, or rather the signifying movements.

So a novel sort of experience comes from a very old story – the one where the middle-aged suit at a conference gets off with a vulnerable woman before returning unhappily to his family.

The question I posed earlier – does the problem lie in Stone or society? – also becomes harder to answer. As a friend pointed out in the pub the other night, Anomalisa is a play not only explicitly on anomaly but, implicitly, on anomie. And there is certainly a lot of that going on. So much, that the story is a profoundly pessimistic one.

We already know that Stone has been here before, found love on the conference trail and dumped her before returning home, illusions dashed, to his miserable domesticity. He seems destined to repeat the grim narrative over and over. The gift he brings back for his kid is, ironically, an automaton.

There is a clue, though, that his home life may not really be so grim, and there is a gleam of hope, too, flickering in his one-night stand.

The affair might have deepened Stone’s despair but Lisa, despite the rotten way she’s been treated, has seized from the episode a smidgeon of self-respect.

Mind you, they are only puppets.

March 23, 2016

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