Review/Analysis includes spoilers but no ending spoilers.
On a business trip from LA, Michael Stone arrives at the airport in Cincinnati, a city with a zoo, featured as being zoo-sized, and chili one has to try, it only takes an hour to have chili.
Everyone has the same voice. Everyone has the same face, except these aren’t faces, quite, they’re masks. Everyone wears the same mask. Michael checks into the Fregoli hotel before a convention where he will lecture on his book: How May I Help You Help Them? About genuine interaction with people and how it can boost sales.
After a call home to his wife and son, whose voices are the same, he calls up an old girlfriend in town, also with the same voice. (The voice of Tom Noonan, who played “Sammy” in Charlie Kaufman’s last movie, and my personal favorite movie of all time, Synecdoche, New York.) They meet in the hotel bar. He left her inexplicably eleven years ago, she wants to know why, but his answers are vague about psychological problems, of his, which quickly turn to accusations of how she changed. She storms off. Back in his room, he catches a unique voice in the hall and chases down Lisa, a woman in town with a friend to hear him speak. The three have drinks. Lisa stands aside on the way back up to the room and it’s Emily, the woman with the same face, same voice, who is on Michael’s arm, but he invites Lisa into his room for a night cap.
Lisa goes but argues that everyone usually likes her friend, Emily. Why does he like her? He thinks she’s extraordinary. Why? “I don’t know, yet. It’s just obvious to me that you are.”
During a long intimate talk the word “anomaly” comes up, a word she learned when she read his book. “I feel like an anomaly,” she says. “Before I knew there was a word for it, it made me feel bad to be different, but now I kind of like it. Sometimes.”
They spend the night together, which includes some of the most graphic sex you’ve ever seen in a movie. Something about the intimacy between two animated puppets making love is flat shocking. But in the morning, Michael finds fault in how Lisa eats, her fork taps her teeth, she talks with her mouth open. Her unique voice starts to morph into that other voice that is everyone else’s but his.
Unless you have handy knowledge of the catalogue of psychological ailments or did a google search on your phone you probably missed, as I did, that the name of the hotel, Fregoli, is also the name of the actual condition Michael Stone has, where he can’t differentiate people. The clever set up of the movie, though, is that we identify with the world Michael Stone sees, in the beginning. The cab driver going on and on about how much there is to see in Cincinatti. The bell hop’s rehearsed chat on the elevator ride up to his room. But really it’s Michael Stone who’s missing the sincerity in these exchanges. The cab driver does know about his city’s unique charm, the chili is cinnamon and chocolate flavored and served over pasta. The bell hop’s body language demonstrates real care in how Michael’s flight went. “You’re safe now,” he tells him.
Everything in the movie is there for a reason. When Michael orders room service he gets the salmon and a salad, but the same voice he always hears reads back to him the dish with all its flourishes and sauces. There is a depth to the world Michael is missing. But this is the world we’re also missing. Michael hears a fresh voice and meets Lisa and we’re as glad as he is for something unique. In the morning, after their night of intimate connection, we learn what isn’t a surprise, Lisa’s voice morphs into that everyone but him voice because this wasn’t a surreal world where everyone has the same face and voice, this was a character failing to maintain connections with people’s unique selves, with the depth present in the world.
Why is Lisa so surprised Michael shows interest in her? Everyone usually likes Emily, she says, because Emily appears to be like everyone else. We look for that conformity, for people wearing those familiar masks, and then want to peer past them and find individuality. When this stops working, when we fail to find individuality, we see nothing but masks and blame the world for not containing the individuality we’re failing to find. The failure is ours, as it clearly is Michael Stone’s.
The difference between humans and sheep is sheep don’t go around accusing the other sheep of being sheep. We are all unique snowflakes. You are but so is everyone else, but like snowflakes we have to look awfully close to find out we’re different because we’re mostly all the same. What we tend to forget, what Michael Stone forgot, is that our sameness is as much a part of the beauty of being human as our individuality is.
In the line I quoted above Lisa says it made her feel bad to be different until she found out there was a word for it. Her individuality needed to relate to the community outside of it. Then she could like being different, but only sometimes. Because she still had that desire to fit in.