How important is a smile? In cinematic terms, it changes everything. When we see Lisa’s expression at the end of Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa, the theme is clear. Lisa didn’t have to spell out the importance of her expression; she just provided closure by smiling. Moments before this, Michael sits with his head in his hands as his life returns to ruin. This stark contrast shows what ego can do to someone who can’t control it. We are lead to believe that Michael had found true happiness externally, but in reality, his life will always be a struggle to manage internally.
Michael’s higher view of himself compared to others paints a ruinous reality in his own mind. Every person Michael meets has the same voice and the same face. Michael thinks he’s conquered his surreal existence when he meets Lisa. Lisa is different. She has a new voice and a new face. Instead of exploring this anomaly to further understand why Lisa is so different, Michael decides that their meeting is fate, and that this is the indefinitely true love. Michael is blinded by his concept of self-fulfillment throughout their romantic encounter, which ultimately brings Michael to relapse, losing his vision of Lisa’s uniqueness, dooming him to the return to his past internal struggle of ego.
Anomalisa shares much of its theme and story with an earlier film by Sophia Coppola, Lost in Translation. We see a similar story with Bob as he travels to Japan while coping with depression from his everyday life. Once he meets Charlotte, his eyes are opened to the excitement that can be had in life. You might think that Bob shares the same egotistical issue as Michael, but Bob shows his self-control when he can smile looking back as he starts his journey back to the U.S.. Bob recognizes that Charlotte was important to his life and not an escape from his life. There was no master plan to leave his family behind for a new life with a younger woman. The joy they shared together was important to their future. Each of them shared their moments together and were able to return to their lives with their experiences shaping them to be better people. Had Sofia Coppolla chosen to show Bob and Charlotte leaving each other in gloom and despair, the audience would have to believe that that their missed connection would only further ruin their previous mundane lives.
The most telling moment to differentiating Michael and Bob is their final moments of each film. Michael had completely plotted an escape from his life with Lisa, ignoring his own emotions and the consequences of the selfish decision he is about to embark on. No thoughts of self-doubt reach his mind, even after Lisa begins to transform into the average person that Michael perceives. His doubt would never lie in his own self, but Lisa was always just as awful as the rest of the people Michael perceives. Bob also sees an opportunity to drop his past life for Charlotte, but he recognizes his own limitations. Bob chooses to cherish his moments with Charlotte because he doubts his own escapist fantasies. Even if Charlotte was to be revealed as another boring person in his life, he would choose to doubt his instincts and move back to his previous life. The memory of Charlotte in their best moments would be more important in Bob’s reality than the chance for them to elope. Had Michael considered the chance that he had created the anomaly that Lisa is, he would have been more willing to appreciate the moment.
The final seconds of Anomalisa hold on Lisa’s expression rather than Michael’s. The subject of the film is really Michael, but to better understand what ego does to Michael, we have to see Lisa, filled with self-doubt, appreciating the memory of Michael. Even when Michael leaves her behind, she is fond of the way Michael painted her. Michael may have created the anomaly of Lisa in his own head, but he also planted confidence within Lisa. The self-doubt she constantly showed to Michael was always met with his praise of her character. The appreciation she felt for her previously neglected character may have been false, but the recognition itself is enough to boost Lisa’s self-image. Lisa valued their time together and changed as a result, but Michael took the experience as a fault in Lisa. This leaves Michael ignorant to the fact that he would be plagued by his own reflection for the rest of his life.