A conversation with Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Simon Critchley about how Phillip perceives happiness. (The emotion, and not the film he starred in in 1998.) It may not be exceedingly weird, but the relevance to his untimely death is surprising.
DIRECTED BY: Adam Elliot
FEATURING: Voices of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Humphries, Toni Collette,
PLOT: A lonely 8-year old girl in Australia picks a random address out of the New York Cityp hone book so she can ask where babies come from in America and begins a lifelong pen-pal relationship with Max, a middle-aged New Yorker with Asperger’s syndrome.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s very good for a sentimental drama, but the crazy, damaged characters and intriguing stylized look still won’t rank it any higher than “offbeat” on the weird spectrum.
COMMENTS: The first figure you see in Mary and Max is a depressed, distressed carved koala bear clinging to a mailbox post; it sets the tone of solemn whimsy and announces Adam Elliot’s art style, a heaping dollop of cute cut with a tablespoon of the grotesque. (When the action shifts from Australia to New York, the first figure you see is a glum and manly Statue of Liberty). Mary, the little girl, is dowdy, with glasses and a “poo” colored birthmark, but Max is an ogre: a husky pinhead with ears on stalks, a dingy gray Shreck, magnificently voiced in a weary monotone by Hoffman. The two main characters rarely speak, except in monologues when they read the missives they exchange; the tale is mostly narrated in a child’s storybook style, which gives the movie a literary flavor and a frequent undercurrent of irony (the narrator explains that Mary wishes she too had a friend to play piggyback with, as the lonely girl gazes out the window at a pair of dogs preparing to mate). The story is sad—Mary’s ugly existence is particularly bleak, and made even worse by bursts of false hope—but the relationship between the two misfits is legitimately heartwarming. The main characters are almost novelistically complex, and the first act, the most rewarding, is devoted to getting to know the Aussie girl and the overweight New Yorker who always wanted a friend who was not imaginary, a pet, or a figurine. Quirky secondary characters include a Mary’s agoraphobic neighbor (who Mary thinks suffers from “home-a-phobia”), her “wobbly” sherry drinking mom, and Max’s half-blind neighbor Ivy, who smells like urine and cough drops. Tiny details and running jokes are embedded in the claymation designs, like the series of rhyming epitaphs and the homeless man in front of Max’s tenement with a sign that changes over the years of the friends’ correspondence. The Australian scenes are colored in a drab, rustic sepia, while New York is a noirish black and white; both locations have brilliant splashes of red representing the rare intrusion of joy into the character’s dim lives. Humor—from the wry to the laugh-out-loud hilarious, as when Max explains where babies come from—is a near constant companion, at least for the first two thirds of the film. The movie is intoxicating while it takes its time introducing the pen-pals, but once their characters are established, the plot hurtles through incidents as Mary grows up, loses her parents, goes to university, finds love and a career and many setbacks, and finally travels to New York to meet Max. Ironically, the more that happens in the story, the more momentum it loses; it was more fascinating as a series of leisurely, anecdotal correspondences. Further, as the story heads towards its climax, the humor drains out, as a series of personal disasters pile up on poor Mary and drive her to the psychic breaking point. Although it scarcely ruins a great film, Elliot overplays the pathos in the climax, ending the story depressingly; the final ray of sunlight, though it brings a tear to the eye, can’t relieve the heavy, heavy clouds that cast the final act into darkness. This bittersweet animated feature isn’t kids’ stuff, or really weird stuff, but it’s worth your time if you have a sentimental old softie buried somewhere inside you, and he likes to laugh.
Mary and Max is the feature length culmination of a theme Elliot had worked on in a series of short films: the relationship between a “normal” person and an eccentric, disabled outcast (the cousin in “Cousin” suffers from cerebral palsy; the title character in the Oscar-winning short “Harvie Crumpet” is afflicted with Tourette’s syndrome). Having finally explored this terrain for a full ninety minutes, it will be interesting to see if the talented director tries something different next.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Irene.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)
“I think the movie is fun. It has a lot of serious emotional stuff in it, but it’s funny in a weird way. You don’t have to worry, ‘What does the burning house mean?’ Who cares. It’s a burning house that someone lives in—it’s funny.”–Director/writer Charlie Kaufman
PLOT: Caden is a community theater director in Schenectady, New York, whose marriage and health are crumbling. When things seem their lowest—his wife abandons him, and he believes that he’s dying—he inexplicably receives a MacArthur Genius grant. He uses the money to create a meticulous recreation of New York City inside a warehouse, filled with actors playing characters from his own life, including one playing Caden the director himself.
- Synecdoche is the directorial debut of Charlie Kaufman, who has been the screenwriter behind most of Hollywood’s big-budget weird films in the past decade. His scripting credits include Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation (2002), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004).
- Kaufman began the script for Synecdoche as a horror film to be directed by frequent collaborator Spike Jonze. Over two years the script evolved into its current tragicomedy form, and, as Jonze was busy with other projects, it was agreed that Kaufman would direct, with Jonze co-producing.
- Synecdoche, New York won the 2008 Independent Spirit Award for best first feature.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Synecdoche is a movie that weirds us out more through the concepts and dramatic situations than through the visuals, but there is a lovely image of a tattooed rose that physically sheds a real dead petal as its owner expires.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Charlie Kaufman. More to the point, Charlie Kaufman unleashed; unlike Being John Malkovich or Adaptation, where weird and puzzling events are given a rational (if obscure) answer by the end, the weirdness of Synecdoche deliberately frustrates all attempts at a logical solution. Hazel’s house, which burns and smokes for decades without being consumed, is shamelessly absurd. The movie is an exploration of dream logic, a life journey that fractures time, space and coherence, where individual events do not add up piece by piece on a plot level, but resolve themselves on an emotional level.
Original trailer for Synecdoche, New York
COMMENTS: “There is a secret something at play under the surface, growing like an Continue reading 27. SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK (2008)