Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?: Film Review

IFC Films
Enjoyable doc should get a new generation intrigued by the famous thinker's career.

Michel Gondry hand-animates a conversation with Noam Chomsky.

Is there an odder couple onscreen this year than inveterate quirkmeister Michel Gondry and no-nonsense, plainspoken intellectual Noam Chomsky? After lending his time to innumerable docs and being the sole focus of more than a couple (including 1992's surprise hit Manufacturing Consent), Chomsky sat in 2010 for conversations with Gondry that have become Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?, an almost entirely hand-drawn, animated film that was clearly a labor of love for the director and has enough charm to reach a wider audience than his other recent docs.

Though Gondry shot a bit of 16mm footage during the talks, which we see from time to time, the interviews were captured largely in audio recordings, with all the accompanying imagery springing from Gondry's arsenal of colored Sharpies and the occasional still photo. Gondry introduces the film in voiceover, justifying his strange approach by fretting about the "manipulative" nature of traditional documentaries, where the effects of edits are "invisible." Supplying his own images, Gondry says, will make it impossible for viewers to mistake his subjective contributions for the professor's message.

The caveat is both unconvincing and unnecessary. If anything, flooding the viewer's senses with so much stimulation -- drawings that not only illustrate the topic being discussed, but flash and spiral and decorate this imagery without pause -- presents challenges to digesting dense ideas that aren't present in the standard talking-head nonfiction film. (One wonders what Chomsky, who has studied the way brains make sense of the world for so long, would say about this pedagogic strategy.)

But viewers likely to be in the audience will have come seeking the very thing Gondry seems apologetic about -- not an "objective," academic treatment of Chomsky's thinking on language, religion and popular democratic movements, but an engagement with those ideas that employs Gondry's peculiar sensibility. We get that, and how: Ever-curious, self-deprecating about occasions in which his fumbling English keeps him from making questions clear, Gondry works with sweet earnestness to understand his subject and convey that understanding to us.

On some topics, the pairing works beautifully. Unsurprisingly, this is especially true when Chomsky makes points by talking of fairy tales and magic transformations. When a child is told a story about a donkey that is turned into a stone by a spell, how does the child instinctively know that the stone is still in essence the donkey, not some unrelated object? That's a question made for Gondry's surrealism-friendly brain.

The conversation turns personal eventually, with Gondry extracting a few details from a man who's reluctant to speak about his relationship with his late wife or the things that bring him personal happiness. Perhaps the difficulty is that Chomsky truly doesn't believe he deserves this kind of individual spotlight -- that like the Ship of Theseus, which is repaired so often it eventually contains none of its original parts, the person we see onscreen is no more special than any in the sea of humans engaged in a history's long pursuit of knowledge and justice.

Production Company: Partizan

Director-Screenwriter: Michel Gondry

Producers: Raffi Adlan, Georges Bermann, Julie Fong, Michel Gondry

Editors: Sophie Reine, Adam M. Weber

No rating, 88 minutes