Mary and Max
Reviewed in October 2009 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Adam Elliot. Animated. Voice Cast: Barry Humphries, Toni Collette, Bethany Whitmore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Eric Bana, Renée Geyer, Adam Elliot. Screenplay: Adam Elliot.

This review is for that wizard of Oz, Glenn Dunks: ambassador for the Antipodes, fun and thought-provoking writer, loyal commenter, and demonstrably lovely fellow. Glenn, you are welcome to drop me a Lamington cake in the mail any time you want, even if it molds (although honestly, I'd prefer a Tim Tam).

Photo © 2009 Melodrama Pictures/Icon Film Distribution
Mary Daisy Dinkle wants to know where babies come from, because her reclusive father's explanation—that men sometimes find them at the bottoms of their beer glasses, and hence become fathers—lacks a certain ring of truth. She decides to write a letter of inquiry to an arbitrarily chosen American, who will have to tell her what's what, because all of the Americans in the phone book she finds in her local post office have fascinatingly Jewish names, and because they seem to know everything despite all the cola they drink (are American babies found at the bottoms of cola cans?), and because she is already enraptured with a picture she sees of the august, inviting Statue of Liberty. That is, in the delectably askew argot of this movie, "a picture of a lady standing in a brown lake, with her hand on fire." Furiously Mary writes, left-handedly like any true misfit, and off goes her letter, to one Max Jerry Horowitz she has never met. I could have sworn I spotted a Dame Edna Everage stamp on her envelope as she sent it on its way.

And so commences Mary and Max, a claymation confection from Down Under that is perkily iconoclastic and—how to put this?—gorgeously drab, or drably gorgeous. This proves to be as winning a combo as the drier wit and engagingly Crayola hues of the Wallace and Gromit films. The dominant colors of the Australian setting in Mary and Max are a pasty white, a rubbery black, and a brown the color of a tobacco-chewer's spit, yet it's sprucely lit and charmingly detailed, from the strange, dragon-shaped planters on the lawns of Mary's neighborhood to the gray-favoring mood ring on Mary's finger to the cracked-out rooster that Mary enthusiastically adopts and refers to as Ethel, and who can get a laugh just by cocking its worry-browed, bug-eyed gaze in the viewer's direction, in the corner of any shot.

If poor Ethel looks perpetually ready to play the final scenes of Flowers for Algernon, it's no wonder Mary adores and relates to him. When the first voice-over line in your own movie says, "Mary Dinkle's eyes were the color of muddy puddles, and her birthmark the color of poo," you're unlikely to look unkindly on any frazzled bird who's content to keep your company. Much less are you liable to reject the correspondence of a 352-pound, anxiety-prone shut-in from far-off New York City, where everything is slab-black, dandruff-white, and slate-gray, and you no sooner spot a close-up on a Welcome sign than some unseen miscreant plows it full of bullet holes. Max worries about Big Applers who profligately litter the sidewalk with cigarette butts, which he imagines will be swept into gutters by the rain, then washed out to sea where they will give lung cancer to unsuspecting fish. That is, until he reminds himself that the cigarettes would never stay lit under that much water, at which point he files this particular cuckoo anxiety somewhere in the back of his fretful brain. Max resents his physician and psychotherapist, Dr. Hasselhoff, who is prone to doing one-armed handstands on his desk as grand demonstrations of fitness, while Max gorges himself on chocolate hot-dogs (i.e., bars of cooking chocolate in Wonder Bread buns), drags himself to Overeaters Anonymous meetings that he refers to as "classes," and quavers at the attentions of a fellow Overeater, because, the narrator confides, "flirting was as foreign to him as... jogging." Mary diligently, excitedly reads about all of this, even as Max—stricken with terror by her sex-related questions, as by sex itself—elects to placate her with the inherited wisdom of his childhood. Babies, he reveals, are hatched from eggs laid and warmed by venerable rabbis. Unless you're Catholic, in which case the eggs are laid by nuns. Unless, worse, you're an atheist, in which case the eggs, as per Horowitz family lore, are laid by dirty, lonely prostitutes who have nothing, nothing.

Almost all of this zesty, outré exposition arrives in the first half-hour of Mary and Max, when this altogether delightful film runs at its fullest, craziest, most prepossessingly oddball stride. If there's anything to be said against the movie through these wickedly detailed, energetic, snazzily-scored sequences, it's that writer-director Adam Elliot hews a little conservatively to a praxis of illustrating on screen almost exactly what his narrator or, less often, his characters are saying. Not that Barry Humphries's saucy but restrained narration ever wears out its welcome (quite a feat). Nor would the film have profited from the old maxim of just "showing" and not "telling." In fact, much of Mary and Max is about the difference between what life shows you and what you tell yourself about it, or what you tell someone else to whom you have no immediate access, and how this kind of telling invites candor, humor, and creativity, as well as vulnerability and capacities to be hurt—not that any of us who write for the internet know anything about any of that. Mary and Max is more interesting for showing and telling so effusively, and all the more so when there's some productive tension between what's shown and told, or some extra morsels in the mise-en-scène beyond the narrated "point" of the shot, which is very, very often.

And more than that, Mary and Max is uproariously funny, even more for its images than its words. The stupefied house-pets, to include a long series of goldfish and Max's one-eyed cat Hal, are delightfully careworn little critters, even before the movie feels inspired to cut to POV shots from their perspectives, filtered through punched-out holes in a field of total, insentient blackness—holes that are the exact same fried-egg shape as their shellshocked eyes. Frowny, lumpy little houseflies swirl about Max's apartment. Oogly arachnids live and die in Mary's mailbox while she waits and waits for another letter. Moving beyond the animal kingdom, we are treated to two comically grim factory-presses, one which applies strings to teabags and the other which appliques logos onto frisbees; an imagined wedding between Mary Dingle and her projected savior in the Scottish peerage, named Earl Grey; blackboards at feloniously inadequate public schools, full of scrawled equations like "9 x 2 = 4" and "1 + 1 = F"; and compulsively sorted, stored, and symmetrically arranged collections of toenails. Mary's disastrously blowzy mom, Vera, staggers around the sherry-flavored shortcake she has dumbly attempted in a display of maternal devotion, or else just to keep herself busy. She aggressively flings some strawberries at it, like Max von Sydow flicking holy water at Linda Blair. Later, the homeless New Yorker whose collection can once said "Financial Advice, 50¢" changes his tiny placard to read, "Keep your money; I won't change." Line, color, depth, detail, and tonal register are all humorously toyed with in these shots and many others, enough so that I found the prefatory sequences of Mary and Max as high-velocity and super-savory as the prologue of The Royal Tenenbaums and as memorable as the first chapter of Pixar's Up, without nearly so much expert pandering to safe sentimentality.

The screenplay brims with devilishly Aussie one-liners, as when Max is exonerated of a freak accident in which his air-conditioning unit fell from his window and crushed a sidewalk performer. "The manslaughter charges were dismissed," we learn, "as Max was found to have no reason to kill a mime artist—unlike most people..." The script has a knack for children's tasty malapropisms, with Mary mistaking rabbis for rabbits, and pitying a legless WWII veteran across the street "who is afraid of outside, which is a disease called homophobia." Max's verbal tics swirl around the mélange of useless information he has sponged from the television and spouts back at Mary for want of something to say. "Did you know that turtles can breathe through their anuses?" he asks in a P.S., apropos of nothing, as though it could ever be apropos of anything. As voiced by an unrecognizably Bronxed-out Philip Seymour Hoffman, Max presumes that any child in Australia must have a pet kangaroo, and that she may just as easily be a communist as not. As you'll have noted, the temptation is strong to list out Mary and Max's best bits, though as with any film with this much comic momentum and distinctive imagery, at least half the laughs arise from the rhythm and context in which they appear. Mary and Max, with its solid foundation in the blended exuberance and melancholia of having a distant pen-pal, handily earns the right to toss off these non-sequiturs and to indulge its bizarre but, in my case, contagious sense of humor.

For those reasons, it becomes a bit of a letdown when the script enforces some miscommunications and some prickly distance between our misbegotten heroes, which in turn leads to some predictable oratory about misfits, weirdos, and being proud of one's own idiosyncrasies. The whole look and climate of Mary and Max have already radiated such confident affection for anything and everything peculiar that the characters' realizations in these regards seem a bit delayed, or else just compulsory. There's a strange swerve where an inaptly chosen boyfriend of Mary's has to dump her not for potent reasons that have to do with him (no good ignoring the suggestive hat-tip to a honeymoon in Mykonos), but as a fairly rote way of shaking her out of some misguided dependencies that she has developed as a wayward, abandoned adult. This happens after she loses one of her parents in an oddly poignant seaside episode, the other through a more garishly ghoulish accident, though in this respect Mary and Max shows an admirable urge to embrace the funny and the poetic as well as the distasteful and oppressive within its half-merry, half-wistful catalogue of life's misfortunes. Still, the berzerk asides that flower across the movie's first half are on a much tighter leash in the second, though I did adore the psychiatry textbook Madness: A Brief History, with the image of a squawking, cross-eyed starling in mid-flight emblazoning the cover. Toward the end of the movie, as confidences are exchanged about Forgiveness and Imperfection, I realized that as winsome and ingratiating and emotionally inviting as I had found Mary and Max, it hadn't built up quite enough reserve affection to get me through just any old conclusion. An extra pass at the story outline might have helped, but then I felt the same about such prize-collection animated features as WALL•E and Spirited Away and Lilo & Stitch, so it may be a built-in peril of the form, or else a lurking bias in my own responses.

At the very least, I should clarify that Mary and Max crisply avoids going out on a softball note of Up With Dorks admiration. The protagonists' problems remain real problems, the necessary patch-ups in their long-distance friendship still leave room for estimable regrets and misunderstandings, and even a sidelong allusion to an acknowledged Aussie masterpiece, involving the couriering of an important "key" from one character to another, preserves and even heightens the emotional aggression that already limns the comparable gesture in the earlier film. When Mary doesn't hear from Max for a while, she commences the not-unusual feminine impulse to scour her self-image, working from the basic assertion that she has scared him off. She is right in this case, albeit in a way she couldn't possibly imagine or be blamed for, which says infinitely more about Max than it does about her, but I appreciated that the script wasn't eager to haul out the trope of the blithe, easily healed, you're-ok-I'm-ok resolution. Toni Collette, who takes over vocal duties for Mary as she ages, holds back from hammering home the one-liners, especially the ones Mary wouldn't perceive as jokes, and commits to the character's rue and perplexity. Hoffman is generally on better footing in the earlier scenes, with his uproariously nasal and declamatory way of pronouncing the most outlandish deductions as mundane observations, but even as he risks getting schtickier, Mary and Max sets a high bar among recent celebrity voice-casts, which have reached the point (as Pixar, too, seems to have acknowledged) where one yearns for fewer "names" to bring characters to independent life.

These minor chords and emotional complexities elevate many a shot or a story beat that I otherwise would have found a bit over-weening toward the middle and end of Mary and Max (the rectal thermometer, the stapled lips, the noose) or else suspiciously precious (the baby, the lights of New York City). But this is the last movie one wants to describe as though its merits have always and only to do with its sobrieties, or that its comic or sentimental effusions are generally its weak-spots. Short of Whip It, which also cheerfully exaggerates what's already piquantly weird in its characters and cultural idioms, I haven't had this much laugh-out-loud fun inside a movie theater in ages. Granted, I'd be a sucker for most movies where a strategic slick of rooster shit plays a decisive role in enabling an emotional communion, or where a young girl thinks to ask, "If a taxi goes backwards, does the driver owe you money?" or where a TV program about Smurfish little creatures called Noblets appeals to the same young girl because they're kooky and adorable, and to her middle-aged friend on the opposite side of the earth because the Noblets "lived in a delineated and articulated social structure with constant adherent conformity." Chacun son Noblet, but I suspect Mary and Max will appeal to plenty of people's palates. If there's a bit more "adherent conformity" by the end of Mary and Max than I would have liked, at least in terms of genre beats and character arcs, that all matters rather little when compared to the overall film: visually unique, sonically boisterous, cheerfully nutty, and occasionally, believably world-weary. B+


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