The subtitle of “Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?,” which should really be called, “Is the Title of This Film Awkwardly Phrased?,” is “An Animated Conversation With Noam Chomsky,” and most people will think that’s all they really need to know about whether they’ll like this movie or not. If they don’t like animation, especially overly sketchy animation that resembles psychedelic, stream-of-conscious ravings, or don’t know who Noam Chomsky is, they probably won’t be very interested in seeing it, and that’s a shame. This deliriously unusual film pulsates with life and will have you thinking about it long after you’ve seen it.
I’ll be honest in saying I wasn’t all that familiar with Chomsky and his work before seeing this film, but I’m glad I got a peek inside his world, courtesy of director Michel Gondry’s amusing drawings. Yes, the “Animated” part of this “Animated Conversation” is quite literal, and the most obvious comparison one could make is to Richard Linklater’s criminally underrated gem “Waking Life,” which was also a series of philosophical conversations portrayed through ingenious animation. It’s almost as if both Linklater and Gondry were afraid the conversations, engrossing as they are, wouldn’t stand on their own as a piece of cinema (film is a visual medium, after all) and were forced to provide a sort of gimmicky trick to keep the viewer interested. Well, the trick worked on this reviewer.
Chomsky is considered one of the most important thinkers alive, and Gondry attempts to corral all those thoughts into a coherent form the average layman like myself can understand. Gondry, whose “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” remains my favorite movie of the 2000s, is in rare form here as he steps in front of the camera through an animated vessel of himself. The film itself is a feat of ambition and perseverance. It took over 2 years for Gondry to animate, and at one point, he even bemoans this fact out loud, saying his bedroom floor is littered with hundreds of pages of his drawings. The only animator to pour himself into his work this completely who comes to mind is Bill Plympton, who animated an entire movie, “The Tune,” by himself. It’s a Herculean effort, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed by me. As an added bonus, Gondry’s inspired drawings are reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s best work with Monty Python.
Most of Gondry’s and Chomsky’s conversations center on language, how it began and why it developed the way it did. For example, considering the titular phrase, how in changing the declarative sentence, “The man who is tall is happy” into a question, we moved the second “is” to the front of the phrase? In other words, why did we not make it, “Is the man who tall is happy?” and how is it even children understand this is gibberish?
One explanation is knowledge from past lives, but even Chomsky seems unsatisfied with that answer. In fact, he spends almost as much time in this semi-documentary confessing that some truths in the world are unsolved mysteries, and he freely admits to not understanding everything, which is a typical remark for an intellectual, going all the way back to Plato and continuing to the punk band Operation Ivy when they sang, “All I know is that I don’t know.”
Another theme of the discussions presented in the movie is of identity and how something isn’t necessarily classified by its physical aspects. For instance, there’s a children’s story where a donkey named Sylvester is transformed into a rock, but even when he’s a rock, he’s still Sylvester the donkey, and the kids in the story-as well as the ones being told the story-understand this, trying to convince their parents that the rock is in fact Sylvester.
Another parable describes a tree being chopped near its base and another one growing from its stump. As Gondry beautifully animates the roots and branches of this fallen tree extending and vibrating practically off the screen, Chomsky wonders, “How do we know it’s not the same tree?”
As an Editor myself, I can’t help but get wrapped up in conversations like this. I find the mystery of language and even its misunderstanding fascinating. Personally, it reminds me of my boss instructing my department to complete a certain task, but then everyone goes back to their desks and no one does the exact same thing. Everyone interprets words-and indeed the world-differently.
While Gondry’s French accent is difficult to understand, fortunately many of his questions to Chomsky are transposed to text onscreen. To be fair, Chomsky’s low, gravelly voice is sometimes equally challenging to comprehend. Perhaps the most humorous bits involve Chomsky directly contradicting Gondry, interrupting his interview several times rather bluntly. This forces Gondry to literally stop his film to defend himself, explaining his point of view with text on screen (lest we get confused by his thick accent).
Even at age 85, Chomsky still has a lot to say, and the only time he remains silent in the film is when he’s asked to talk about his late wife. Instead of a wordy dissection of his feelings, which is the majority of this movie, there’s a beautifully quiet passage of a caricaturized Chomsky and his wife riding bicycles in the sky, backed by a gorgeous song featuring a heartfelt acoustic guitar.
A film like this is difficult to review, as there is no real plot per se. All I can do is attempt to describe the sense of wonder one feels as Gondry heroically tries to externalize Chomsky’s brilliant internal musings with his fevered sketches. My favorite section that encapsulates the movie’s ambition is when Chomsky talks about questions simply leading to more questions, and we see an infinite series of windows and doors parade by the screen to an ever expanding horizon.
Of course, this film isn’t perfect. At certain points, the narrative tends to meander, but with a concept like this, how can it not? Also, at times it’s hard for the drawings-and your mind-to keep up with Chomsky’s thoughts. (We’re not all celebrated geniuses, after all.) But this problem, if you can call it that, will only spark a second-or third-viewing, which isn’t a terrible thing.
Despite its flaws, “Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?” is still a remarkable achievement, and unlike most cinematic fare aimed at the masses, it’s a film I won’t soon forget.