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Sundance Film Festival 2009: G'day Sundance

Sundance Film Festival 2009: G'day Sundance

For

the first time in its 25-year history, the Sundance Film Festival

opened Thursday night with a movie from Australia. It was also the

first time the festival has opened with a feature-length animation --

one, I feel confident in saying, that is among the strangest animated

films ever made. Written and directed by Adam Elliot (who won an Oscar

in 2004 for his 23-minute animated short, Harvie Krumpet), Mary and Max

chronicles the unusual pen-pal relationship between a shy, gloomy

eight-year-old Australian girl from the Melbourne suburbs and an obese,

44-year-old Jewish man living in New York. They meet by chance, when

Mary (voiced at first by newcomer Bethany Whitmore and later by Toni

Collette) rips Max's name out of an international address book at her

local post office and writes him a letter on a whim.

That

begins 20 years of correspondence in which Mary and Max (voiced by

Philip Seymour Hoffman) become each other's best (and effectively only)

friend in the world, despite the paralyzing anxiety the former's

letters strike in the latter (with their uncomfortable questions like,

"Where do babies come from?"), and despite the efforts of Mary's

perpetually plastered, kleptomaniac mother to stop the letters dead in

their tracks. And who can blame her, really? After all, this sort of

relationship between an older man and a pre-pubescent girl just isn't

done, just isn't normal.

Well, as it happens, nothing in Mary and Max

is within even shouting distance of normal. A true outsider's movie,

the closest it comes to a "well-adjusted" or "socially acceptable"

character may be the bully who terrorizes young Mary on the schoolhouse

playground. But the rest of Elliot's claymated ensemble suggest the

love children of Roald Dahl and Todd Solondz -- among them Mary's

withdrawn, taxidermy-obsessed father, her legless, agoraphobic neighbor

and the nearly blind atheist woman who regularly cooks Max bowls of

disgusting soup. (And to think, I haven't even mentioned Max's

imaginary friend, Mr. Ravioli.) In Elliot's world, even the animals are

outcasts: Mary gives shelter to a rooster that falls of a slaughter

wagon, while Max's pet cat is a one-eyed stray with chronic halitosis.

Max is also the owner of a series of pet goldfish, all named Henry,

each of whom dies a stranger and more grotesque death than the one

before -- as for that matter do many of the movie's human characters.

Pixar

this most certainly isn't. In fact, where most feature-length animated

films, by sheer virtue of the painstaking labor involved, aim to reach

the broadest possible audience, Mary and Max -- which took over

a year to produce, at an average rate of five seconds of finished

animation per day -- is as insular and private as any live-action

"personal filmmaking." As it happens, Elliot did base the film in part

on his own longtime pen-pal relationship with a New York man diagnosed

(like Max) with Asperger Syndrome, the autism-like disorder that limits

its sufferers' ability to interpret nonverbal communication. But when I

say Mary and Max is a personal film, I mean more in spirit than

in letter. I mean that this is a movie that seems to well up from a

place of such pain and suffering that it's as if Elliot had cut open

some long scabbed-over wound and let it bleed anew all over the screen.

Certain to traumatize children (and even some adults), Mary and Max may be the first "cartoon" that will find its most sympathetic audiences in support groups and mental hospitals.

This

isn't exactly new territory for Elliot, whose films could be considered

the antidote to 98 percent of Hollywood movies and television programs,

with their smiling, airbrushed characters who rarely encounter a

problem that can't be resolved by the end of act three, and who seem

far more plasticine than Elliot's clay avatars. The title character of Harvie Krumpet

was a Touette's-afflicted Polish refugee who gets struck by lightning,

loses a testicle and eventually succumbs to the ravages of Alzheimer's

and suicidal depression. Likewise, Mary and Max spirals towards

suicide (and electroshock therapy), occasionally permitting a ray of

hope to shine down on the characters, only to just as soon dash it with

storm clouds. When the post-graduate Mary authors a book-length study

of Asperger's, a humiliated Max shows his appreciation by ripping the

"M" key from his typewriter and dropping it in the mail. And when Mary

finds what she thinks is love in the form of a handsome classmate, he

turns out to have his own very special, very male pen-pal -- with

benefits.

The depressive air weighs heavy, but never quite

overwhelms the film, thanks to Elliot's unfailing ability to find

moments of levity amidst the pervasive despair. In spite of everything

I've said thus far, Mary and Max is a very funny movie that

manages to laugh at its eccentric characters without mocking them,

reducing them to grotesques, or suggesting that they should strive to

"overcome" their "handicaps." In Elliot's view, to paraphrase the

Firesign Theatre, we're all manic depressives on this bus, and how much

you enjoy the film may well depend on whether you share in that opinion

or simply can't understand why these miserable people don't quit their

whining and get with the program.

When I left the opening-night screening of Mary and Max,

I wasn't entirely sure if Elliot had pulled the thing off, and even 36

hours later, I think the movie errs in the way of many a debut feature

made by directors accustomed to working in the short form. That is, it

runs out of ideas before it runs out of running time. At 60 minutes,

the movie might have been great. At 90, it remains a strikingly

original, uncompromising piece of work. Visually, it is a marvel of

tinsel-and string, hand-crafted design, from the pale, pear-shaped

characters to its vision of New York City as a chiaroscuro urban jungle

in which the only flashes of color are those that arrive in the post

from Down Under. Then there is Hoffman's splendid performance, which

demands an even more dramatic vocal disappearing act than Truman

Capote's adenoidal whine. Max's voice -- a raspy, Yiddish-inflected

huff -- is so difficult to imagine issuing forth from Hoffman that if

you didn't know it was him you, well, wouldn't know it was him. And

what greater compliment can one pay a character actor than that?

In

the eight years that I've been covering Sundance, this is one of the

only times the opening night film has been less than a calamitous

failure, and maybe the only time it has been a movie of serious

ambition, worth talking, thinking and arguing about afterward. "This

can be a very inspiring time for artists," Robert Redford opined on the

stage of the Eccles Theatre just prior to the Mary and Max

screening, trying to put some kind of optimistic spin on the current

hard times. That's the sort of programmatic spiel (like last year's

dubious festival mantra, "Focus On Film") that usually makes hardened

Sundance vets roll their eyes. But after seeing Mary and Max, I can't help thinking that Redford might be on to something.



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