Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Mary and Max (Australia, 2009)

"When I was young, I invented an invisible friend called Mr Ravioli. My psychiatrist says I don't need him anymore, so he just sits in the corner and reads.
Max Jerry Horovitz

Over the last 14 years, the talented Australian animation filmmaker Adam Elliot has had a small but consistently amazing output of wonderful stop-motion short films, and his first feature-length film, Mary and Max, carries on his tradition of touching, ironic tales that playfully present the ups and downs, the highs and lows, of lives substantially less than perfect. The technical finesse of his chosen media—claymation—keeps changing (as in "improving"), but his insightful and wry eye remains the same. As in the three shorts of family trilogy—Uncle (1996), Cousin (1998—the Short Film of the Month of May 2009 here at A Wasted Life) and Brother (1999)—and his Oscar-winning short Harvie Crumpet (2003 / full film), the tale told in Mary and Max could have easily become mean-spirited and tasteless in the wrong hands, but Elliot manages to keep the film warm and tender and wonderfully sensitive no matter how black the humor sometimes is and how depressing the events might be. In Mary and Max, as in his shorts, the lives presented are hardly ideal and often verge on being dismal, but as bittersweet as they are he manages to present them in a wry manner that is more sweet then bitter.

"Do you have a favorite-sounding word? My top-five are 'ointment,' 'bumblebee,' 'Vladivostok,' 'banana,' and 'testicle.'"
Max Jerry Horovitz

The tale told in Mary and Max hardly sounds like one that could hold anyone's interest for longer than a few minutes, much less than for an hour and a half, but the film remains mesmerizing from start to finish. Beginning in 1976, the simple story follows the 20-year exchange of letters between two misfit pen pals: Mary Dinkle, a plump and lonely eight-year-old of suburban Melbourne and Max Horovitz, an obese, atheist Jew with Asperger's Syndrome surviving in New York City. Mary arbitrarily chooses a name from a NYC phonebook she flips through while her alcoholic mother is busy shoplifting envelopes at a post office, and the exchange of mail initiated by her innocent first letter serves as the central thread around which the life experiences of both characters are revealed. There is no excessive action, adventure or suspense in the oft laughter- and smile-inducing but nonetheless poignant if not occasionally tragic and depressing tale of two lost and friendless souls that find true friendship in their exchange of missives; instead, enveloped within an environment of mostly browns (for Australia) and grays (for New York) and an occasional splash of pure color, Mary and Max gleefully bounces around and ironically touches upon topics as diverse as horny dogs, religion, where babies come from, alcoholism, betrayal, kleptomania, love, obesity, fate, chocolate and death.

"Unfortunately, in America, babies are not found in cola cans. I asked my mother when I was four, and she said they came from eggs laid by rabbis. If you aren't Jewish, they're laid by Catholic nuns. If you're an atheist, they're laid by dirty, lonely prostitutes."
Max Jerry Horovitz

Mary and Max opens with a brief statement that the film is "based on true events," and as such it is based on a long-term exchange that Adam Elliot has had with a pen pal living in NYC: Max is the pen pal, while the life of the young Mary is inspired by Elliot's own childhood in the suburbs of Australia. But the film is hardly documentary in nature or an obviously 100% accurate reflection of reality; many an embellishment or exaggeration is apparent, but for all the creative freedom taken in the narrative the film never slides into puerile or cloying fantasy. There is, for all the eccentricity of the events shown, an underlying connection to the daily disappointments and sadness that can make life so difficult, so hard to bear. At the same time, as uninviting as life sometimes seems to be in Mary and Max, the film retains an oddly optimistic outlook. Happiness, it seems, is a matter of coming to terms with and accepting who and what you are.

"Not much has happened since I last wrote except for my manslaughter charges, lotto win, and Ivy's death."
Max Jerry Horovitz

Mary and Max brims with a bizarre creativity in its narrative and a masterful grasp of its technique (the latter which took 57 weeks in which a crew of six animators averaged about four seconds each a day). It is without a doubt a masterpiece of its genre and very much a film for adults. Not that the film is in any way truly unfit for children, it is simply that the jokes and events are probably much too adult, and the tragic humor much too subtle, for a child to truly find entertaining. As an adult, feature-length "cartoon", however, Mary and Max is a beautiful, tender and highly entertaining piece of filmmaking that by no means should be missed.

"He's scared of outside, which is a disease called homophobia."
Young Mary (in reference to her housebound neighbor Len Hislop)

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