One part of Charlie Kaufman's Anomalisa is really great, and the other part is really predictable. The greatness has everything to do with its look (animated puppets and their world), and the not-so-greatness with its story. The good news is that the latter does not get in the way of the former.
There are scenes in this film whose strangeness will make you feel very uncomfortable or will mesmerize you. The puppets are at once very realistic and not at all. They have short legs, but they also have carefully detailed genitals. The puppets have sex, drink, and blink. But you can also see the joints on their faces. In one scene, the face of the movie's main character, Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), comes completely off by accident, and we see he is a machine. He then fixes his face back on and continues with what he was doing as if nothing happened. When we get close to the pink skin of the characters (there are no black puppets in this Anomalisa), we can see hair. And when sunlight falls on this hair, it looks like the fuzz on a peach.
Did I mention the sex scene? It's certainly one of the strangest you will ever see on a movie screen. It involves Michael and a woman named Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh). It happens like this: They meet for the first time not long after Michael has a bad experience with a former lover. Lisa is a fan of the books he writes on the principles of customer service. He is attracted to her voice. After a few drinks in the bar, he invites her to his room. She accepts the offer. They enter, they talk, they sit on the bed, they undress, they begin fucking.
The strangeness is all about how real it feels and sounds: the awkward gestures and questions, the noise of the mattress, the moans and grunts, and the duration of the sex. It's the kind of sex most humans have on a one-night stand. But, again, this realism is disrupted, disturbed, even estranged (to use a neologism that approximates the Russian formalist expression ostranenie—it means to make the familiar unfamiliar) by the artificiality of the puppets. Moments like this stop-action sex scene, which is followed by morning light (obviously a lightbulb) filling the room's window, make Anomalisa a very special work of art.
And now for the bad side. The story about a celebrated customer-service guru who meets one of his fans at a very bland and corporate hotel in Cincinnati during a book tour is not interesting as a critique of middle-class conventions and tastes. In fact, we have seen this kind of thing many times before, and, as Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello point out in their important work The New Spirit of Capitalism, it forms the foundation for a particular critique of capitalist society that was popular in mid-century United States and Europe.
Boltanski and Chiapello explain that, traditionally speaking, there have been two types of critiques of the market system: One is social and the other is artistic. The social deals with the meat-and-potatoes problems of wages, benefits, paid leave, and the like. The artistic one involves exposing and often mocking the emptiness of a commercialized existence, the vapidity of suburban homes, the shopping mall, the uniformity of consumption, the manners of expression, the forms of entertainment. This kind of critique, which can be traced back to the 19th century, and was exhausted by the hippies of the 1960s (the war on squares), is treated as if it were something very new or exceptional in Kaufman's film.
Yes, the hero writes books that say the same old things about customer service: The customer should always come first, pay attention to what the customer is saying, smile at a customer even when talking to them on the phone because they can sense that smile, and so on. Yes, Lisa is laughable for finding this kind of advice to be profound. She also finds profundities in dumb pop tunes. These middle-class people do not have souls. They are products of their fully commodified environments. Lisa works at a call center. She is one voice among thousands who repeat the same lines to the same types of people every day. We get it. This is not how life should be lived. There is more to life than this, and so on.
Near the end of Anomalisa, the hero has an expected mental breakdown. He wants to break out of the box of his job, marriage, business trips, and flings with common women. This is nothing but the artistic critique of capitalism in a nutshell. It should (and does) make us yawn. Kaufman and others like him need to totally abandon it and either try something that's really innovative or just stick to the meat and potatoes of the social critique. The artistic critique gets old, but the social does not. We can demand $15 Now! for as long as we don't get it.