Twice in 2010, director Michel Gondry met with Noam Chomsky for a series of conversations about the philosopher, linguist, and author’s childhood in Philadelphia and his theory of generative grammar. The film that resulted, “Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?,” gives no reason beyond curiosity for this collaboration, but it is all we need — how else should any worthy project be assembled? “If you’re willing to be puzzled, you’re able to learn,” Chomsky says at one point. To his credit (and without affectation), Gondry doesn’t cloak the fact that he is often perplexed by his subject. Because of his confusion though, we are able to learn quite a lot.
Part of that immersion is due to the film’s one-off nature. Without sounding rude, no one specifically asked Gondry to create a 16mm animated documentary about one of society’s most prominent thinkers. Rather, as he explains, he was looking for a project to occupy his free time while editing “The Green Hornet” and producing “Mood Indigo.” Inspired by picking up Chomsky’s work in a New York bookshop, Gondry decided to first record talks with the professor at MIT, where Chomsky teaches, and then use those discussions as a springboard for animated explorations of their content.
This decision is perhaps the most crucial: it ensures that newcomers to Chomsky’s linguistic work will find much to enjoy, while more fluent followers can discover a unique reading of those concepts. We aren’t seeing Chomsky’s ideas brought to life in the film. Instead, it is Gondry’s perception of Chomsky’s ideas, which means they are playful, a tad crude, and as elaborately rendered as befitting a man poring over 24 hand-drawn frames a second.
When exploring ideas such as whether a tree branch that produces a new tree when planted is the same as the tree from which it was cut, Gondry uses bold pastel and neon colors, on-screen text, and stock photography to clarify. Elsewhere he illustrates an experiment on memory using mice by showing himself dressed up in a life-size mouse costume, scouring a hallway for cheese. The film is a reverse “Drunk History” — surreal, humorous visualizations of sober ideas with their own internal logic.
A great deal of pleasure also comes from Chomsky’s demeanor toward Gondry. Their meetings come off like the coolest afterschool office hours session on earth, but the professor’s treatment of his “student,” as it were, ranges from third grade to college-level depending on the topic. On more than one occasion, Chomsky shuts a flustered Gondry down with a blunt “that’s not right,” and crossed wires also result from the director’s decision to converse with Chomsky in English over his thick French accent.
Witness the unfortunate mix-up over the word “eel” and “yield.” Or the fed-up “mm-hmm” that Chomsky emits after he lets Gondry excitedly explain teleportation — it may be the greatest delivery in the film. Being the director, Gondry has the final word on what to include, but thankfully, as he says in the film, omitting the moments where he is wrong-footed would be a disservice to the gems from Chomsky that bookend them.
Some may be wincing at the thought of spending 88 minutes with Gondry’s particular visual sense, no matter the worth of the words behind it. To that group there is little use pushing the film further for consideration, other than to say Gondry’s respect for Chomsky focuses his work tremendously. And not all of “Is The Man…” is involved with theory. Chomsky’s childhood meets it halfway: he speaks of growing up with an academic “Zionist” father in Philadelphia; his experience in a progressive grade school; the terror of race riots during WWII; and other details that serve to fill in a rounded picture of the fiercely guarded but amiable man.
Mortality also informs the proceedings, as Gondry expresses anxiety over Chomsky possibly passing away before he is able to show him the film. When asked if he’s worried about his health, the professor responds, “Doctors are, I’m not.” And while it would be easy to paint Chomsky as having a scientific, pragmatic view on death, one also gets the sense that to consider it would simply be too hard.
In the sole musical portion of the film (scored to Mia Doi Todd’s “I Gave You My Home”), Gondry pays tribute to Chomsky’s wife of 59 years, Carol, who died in 2008. The moment comes close to the end, perhaps 10 minutes after Gondry’s approach starts to wear thin, but it wholeheartedly coheres the film. And in the sensitivity and adoration taken to the presence of Carol—a brilliant Harvard language professor in her own right—it seems that perhaps, for the first time, the two men might finally be on the same page. [A-]