Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?
Opens Fri., Dec. 13 at Sundance Cinemas. Not rated. 89 minutes.
Which honor is more likely to make you the star of a movie: being voted People’s “Sexiest Man Alive” or Foreign Policy’s “Leading Global Intellectual”? For perhaps the only time in screen history, this documentary opts for the latter, choosing 2005’s top vote-getter, Noam Chomsky, as its subject.
A lot of this probably had to do with the perpetually whimsical filmmaker involved. French director Michel Gondry is also a designer, animator, inventor, and all-purpose enthusiast; he seems to be curious about just about anything that exists in the world. His resume easily accommodates the melancholy of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the zaniness of Be Kind Rewind, and the countless visually ingenious music videos he’s concocted over the years. His latest film consists of a conversation with Chomsky, almost entirely animated with Gondry’s line drawings and collages. Chomsky is famed as a pioneering linguist and far-left political critic; Gondry engages all that with his crayoned doo-dads and oddly haunting cut-out pictures illustrating some of Chomsky’s basic ideas.
Gondry also asks Chomsky about his childhood and his personal life. The question “What makes you happy?” seems to throw Chomsky for a while, until he lands upon examples of political heroism among oppressed people as a source of satisfaction. Chomsky suggests that his belief in questioning everything was likely rooted in childhood: “It probably started with not wanting to eat my oatmeal.” A skeptic might note that for someone who espouses the importance of doubting and questioning, Chomsky’s responses to Gondry’s questions tend to be sweeping and peremptory, cutting off their interlocutor when he offers some resistance. And that’s too bad, because one of the intriguing things about the movie is Gondry’s presence: a warm, inquisitive, thickly accented personality that seems to bring out some intriguing admissions from Chomsky. The movie could use more of that.
Just looking at this visually clever film becomes a key part of its appeal, as Gondry’s busy imagination runs a race with Chomsky’s brainiac talk. You end up not really knowing enough about either man for the film to be counted a success, but its existence leaves open one amusing possibility: Could this thing actually compete with Despicable Me 2 and Frozen in the Oscars’ best animated film category?