MARY AND MAX (2009)
In a story spanning two decades and two continents, Mary and Max recounts the pen-pal relationship between two very different people: Mary Dinkle, an unregarded, unloved eight-year-old living in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia; and Max Horovitz, a rotund, middle-aged Jewish man with Asperger’s living in the chaotic New York City and someone who looks like Shrek’s depressed cousin.
Made over an arduous and painstaking period of five years by Adam Elliot, the claymation animation seen here isn’t particularly dazzling or innovative but no less evocative and pleasing to look at, as is the lighting; depicting an almost film-noirish world of monochrome for Max – with only the occasional colours standing out, Sin City (2005) style, such as the red pompom Mary sends to Max at one point – and a sepia suburbia for Mary that instantly recalls Kansas in The Wizard of Oz (1939). The exaggerated, sepulchral and almost grotesque designs of the many characters is incredibly striking, resembling the many nightmare-inducing puppets seen on Spitting Image (1984-1997). The voice cast also does an impressive job, especially the solemn Philip Seymour Hoffman and the narration by Barry Humphries, perhaps better known for his alter ego Dame Edna Everage.
The fantastic presentation is just window dressing, though. What makes this film truly something special is the rich subtext. Speaking as someone with autism, I can confirm that this film moved me in ways I had not expected. Max is indeed an odd character – he’s obsessed with discarded cigarettes, peculiar food recipes and virtually no understanding on how love and relationships work – but that’s what makes so endearing; he’s comfortable and content with who he is, in spite of the fact that the world around him doesn’t understand him and tries to change him. To say that this film was simply about autism, however, would be doing it a grave disservice. This is a journey, but instead of an epic, Tolkienesque adventure involving dragons and goblins, we’re instead treated to a grounded, almost pedestrian journey filled with cynics, abusers, shrinks and more as well as explorations into the nature of friendship, taxidermy, psychiatry, alcoholism, obesity, kleptomania, sexual and religious differences and agoraphobia. There’s so much on display here in Mary and Max to talk about, to the point where it might as well be crowned the most ‘essay friendly’ film in existence. The flow of black comedy throughout is also a strong positive, wearing it proudly on its sleeves and making you crack a gleeful smile even though your face may be soaking with tears.
That’s not to say it’s flawless. The frequent and abrupt switches in tone can be rather jolting. At one moment, Mary is enthusing about her favourite TV show; the next, we are being treated to a lecture on the symptoms of Asperger’s – which is not a bad thing, necessarily, and one can’t help but admire Elliot’s ambition.
Remarkably funny and deeply poignant, Mary and Max is a truly eccentric but no less excellent film. But it’s more than that. Throughout my life and time watching and reviewing the diverse range of wonderful, weird and sometimes woeful movies, I’ve always held a firm belief that the are two types of films: those that provide entertainment and escapism and those that seek to educate and enlighten us. It’s an extremely rare and beautiful occurrence when a film somehow manages to achieve both – Mary and Max is one such film.
It ain’t perfect, but in many ways that’s kind of the point. In the eloquent words of Max himself: “The reason I forgive you, is because you are not perfect. You are imperfect. And so am I. All humans are imperfect.”
FINAL JUDGMENT: 9/10 Jeff Goldblums