By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood November 20, 2013 at 3:57PM
As much as I admire filmmaker Michel Gondry and the audaciously transparent concept behind his Noam Chomsky filmed interview "Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?", his idea of animating a documentary to reveal its inherent fakery is counterproductive.
This is one of those five obstructions situations. For starters, this hugely creative and brainy director who speaks English with a strong French accent is narrating his own movie. So in order to make sure you understand him he adds handwritten English titles. That's one distraction. He's using an old camera that he has to draw each time he uses it, he thinks, in order to explain its noisiness. (See the NYT Anatomy of a Scene video below.)
He's also conducting his own interviews with one of the smartest men ever, the linguist Noam Chomsky (84), about very complex ideas. And you can't see the interviews because the live-action film portion of the movie is hidden in a small box. Gondry presumably thinks it's boring, but I wished I could see more of the Chomsky footage. (And I saw this on a big screen. It won't be better on a small one.)
And to also mitigate the intellectually dense material, Gondry draws up a storm. He labored long and hard on the often clever and entertaining animation that goes with this interview--which is intended to make things clearer for us, but doesn't, at all. We have to spend even more energy and concentration on the animation while we are trying to wrap our brains around the philosophical and challenging interview with Chomsky.
Mind you, I am a huge Chomsky fan--I was obsessed with him in college. So I am presumably as good a target audience as you are going to get. This movie gave me headache.
A roundup of reviews, below.
A documentary-like dazzler, Michel Gondry's Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? proves another edifying treasure-hunt into the depths of a living mind. Gondry meets with linguist/philosopher/activist Noam Chomsky in his MIT office, where they launch into a wide-ranging conversation that starts with Chomsky's childhood, crashes into the origins of modern science, and then considers at length the way our brains process and develop language -- and the relationship between the words we use to speak and think of the world and the world itself. Imagine an doozy of an office-hours audience with the most brilliant professor you never had, set inside a kaleidoscopic lightboard of a shared mind-space, where everything that professor says is illustrated in pulsing, wheeling, mercurial cartoons. It's a mad thrill, like witnessing a great evolutionary leap of the margin notes you may have doodled in class.
The centerpiece of "Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?" is as much Gondry as Chomsky; the contrast between them wryly juxtaposes measured and chaotic introspection. By extension, its real topic is the elusive nature of all thought processes, and it effectively shares the dual speakers' collective journey without revealing any tangible destination. The movie ends, but the discussion resonates indefinitely.
But no topic feels forced or tokenized, sticking out too long or speedily blasting through itself. For the most part, their collaboration is a magnificently quizzical diagram of two ceaselessly inquiring minds in perfect tandem, like a raw X-ray of atomized creativity.
The point, of course, is to get lost. As the soft-spoken sage himself notes, “The world is a very puzzling place.” What a pleasure it is, the film suggests, to be perpetually befuddled.
Even though Gondry and Chomsky’s very different sensibilities don’t mesh in such a way that either man’s work gains substantially from the alliance, they’re each such good company individually that Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy? is still entertaining.