There are moments in Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York that deserves to stand next to the works of our greatest philosophers, and while it may be premature to declare it Kaufman’s magnum opus, I don’t think it’s unfair to say it is one of the most important movies ever made about what it is to be human.
Synecdoche is next to impossible to talk about because it is so vast in its scope; so unadulterated in its exploration of humanity. It makes statements on the importance of individuality; the fluidity of identities; the impossibility of happiness; and the cosmic insignificance of our race. It takes the bleakest philosophies and the most pessimistic literature to fashion a monumental narrative of tangents and so-called sideshadowing, and it does it in a beautiful way. It explores nihilistic ideas in a way that hasn’t been done since Nietzsche – don’t sue me if this is an exaggeration – and manages to find the inherent beauty in all of us. While this may sound horribly pretentious and hyperbolic, I don’t think it is too far from the truth.
“Truth” is the keyword when talking about Kaufman’s sensibilities as a writer, because whether or not one agrees with his characters, situations, stories or ideas, he’s always truthful to himself; and thus, to us.
Where Synecdoche is a preposterously grandiose production – in both form and content – Anomalisa is smaller and a much more intimate one, but nonetheless profound. Here Kaufman talks about the monotony of our existence, the inescapability of it all, and the mundanity of our daily routines; he talks about narcissism and love – be it honest or dishonest – and the masks we put up to shield ourselves from honest conversations and interactions. He does all this with stop motion animation, and through this medium his aforementioned sensibilities with the pen are allowed to flourish unabashedly on the screen.
Every scene feels finished – as meaningless as that comment is on its own – through compositions that compliment its story. Every doll is beautifully constructed, down to the metaphorical masks we wear at all times, and every detail feels at home where they sit in the tangible fabric of the character’s clothes, to the very real – but also dreamlike – architectural design of the hotel most of the movie is set in. It all looks and feels essential; not a single element out of place or extraneous.
This is also present in the voice-work, with only three different actors on the call sheet. Our main protagonist (and/or antihero), Michael Stone, is voiced brilliantly by David Thewlis, and Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Lisa with a spellbinding tenderness. It is, however, Tom Noonan’s performance as literally everyone else in the movie – from hotel receptionists to children and wives – that really steals the show. It’s a brave directorial choice, and its intent is obvious, but I was floored by just how well it worked aesthetically. Noonan’s voice is muted and subdued throughout, and it is used not only to enhance the idea of monotony and uniformity, but also to underline our masks; and on a more film-technical level, it is the pièce de résistance for the movies more palpable emotional moments; be it the insanely paranoiac opening sounds, to a latter moment of catharsis for both Michael and the audience.
It really is next to impossible to talk about Anomalisa, and Kaufman’s work in general, without a slew of pretension and hyperbole, but if there was ever a movie, and ever a director who deserves all the superlatives plastered on its poster, its this one.