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Film Review: Mary & Max

Benjamin Walker
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PARK CITY -- There is much to admire in Adam Elliot's "Mary & Max," from the painstaking clay animation process where an animator feels lucky to produce four seconds of film a day to the movie's embrace of humanity with all its messiness and marginalized people. But here's the rub: You admire the film rather than love it. The coolness of its technique and the air of melancholy that pervades its story keep a viewer at arm's length.

The opening-night selection for the 2009 Sundance Film Festival is defiantly independent and rigorously avoids even the slightest condescension to commercial considerations. Its opening sequences reveal a sensibility that could speak to children and adults alike. But after a few dead animals, legs eaten by piranhas, bouts of alcoholism, kleptomania, severe depression and a suicide attempt, you realize "Mary & Max" is aimed at the festival circuit, not the commercial cinema.

At first it would be hard to imagine a tougher subject for any sort of animation than a story of a pen-pal relationship over 20 years. Yet this actually works quite well as Elliot taps into huge reservoirs of wit both in the narration and in his visual playfulness so that the intercontinental epistles come brilliantly alive.

The story has three narrators: The letter writers, Mary (Bethany Whitmore as a child and Toni Collette as an adult) and Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and a narrator (Barry Humphries) who explains the physical and psychological torments of these two with a compassionate bemusement.

At the beginning, Mary is a chubby, friendless 8-year-old in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, who is not altogether convinced of her mother's explanation of where babies come from -- her mom insists that dads find them at the bottom of beer mugs -- so she randomly writes to Max Horowitz in New York City.

Max is an even lonelier character, an obese 44-year-old Jew who will eventually be diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a mental disability that provokes anxiety and disconnects the afflicted with the world but does not entirely rob them, on the basis of Max's observations, of a hilarious point of view.

When Mary complains about a bully who teases her about a facial birthmark the color of poo, Max suggests telling the nasty boy that the mark means she will be in charge of all the chocolate when she gets to heaven and she will make certain the boy will get none. The suggestion works perfectly.

Chocolate and other sweets are just one of the obsessions the two share. As the years go by, they exchange letters and sweets and open up the world to one another in unexpected ways. Yet their problems remain. They have never met yet are each other's best friends.

Mary's incredibly dysfunctional family crumbles and dies one by one. Max's pet fish all die, and his attendance at Overeaters Anonymous never seems to do any good. Max does win the lottery and Mary does achieve success by writing a book about Max's mental afflictions, but this infuriates Max, who feels betrayed. The breach is not easily healed.

Mary's world is like her birthmark -- done in palettes of brown and beige. Max's is virtually black and white with odd bits of gray and red. The tones are always muted in contrast to most animation.

You might think of "Mary & Max" as outsiders' art. Only a true purist with a high threshold for pain would embrace clay animation, a rigorous, demanding process, which in this instance involved a 57-week shoot with 212 puppets, 133 sets and more than 1,026 mouths cast so the characters can speak. One could achieve similar results with CGI -- similar but not the same. Elliot has made four previous shorts in Australia this way before making this, his first feature.

In this melancholy tale, which is not without its humor or moments of exhilaration, Elliot nevertheless makes no concession to lighten the load or sweeten the sour pot. Most of the movie's characters are people lost in the modern world with acute feelings of persecution and fear. No one gave them a survivor's manual.

Elliot's heart clearly goes out to such people. Indeed, the movie is based on his own pen-friendship with an "Aspy" in New York. His clay animation very nicely conveys the inner world of the autistic. The mind's imagery comes alive onscreen in a way life-action could never do. The whole film represents an astonishing feat that, who knows, might even help specialists deal with such troubled beings. But the movie is a bit of a long sit for the nonspecialist.

Production companies: Melodrama Pictures/Screen Australia/Film Victoria/SBS Television Australia, Adirondack Pictures
Cast: Toni Collette, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Humphries, Eric Bana, Bethany Whitmore
Director/screenwriter/production designer: Adam Elliot
Producer: Melanie Coombs
Executive producers: Mark Gooder, Paul Hardart, Tom Hardart, Bryce Menzies, Jonathan Page
Director of photography: Gerald Thompson
Editor: Bill Murphy
Sales: Icon Entertainment International

Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

No rating, 92 minutes