By Eric Kohn | Indiewire November 18, 2013 at 12:00AM
It's not the only time Gondry casts himself as the slapstick naif on the receiving end of Chomsky's genius. Elsewhere, he discusses his struggles to complete the project while in post-production on "The Green Hornet" years back; as he talks, we see him represented by a giant bug wandering about his living room. It's a candid admission by implication: While Gondry was glued to his work on a commercial spectacle, he was cognizant of its fundamental simplicity in contrast to this deeper side project.
But if "The Green Hornet" hurt Gondry's pride, "Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?" should bring it back. More than capable interrogator, he guides Chomsky across a wide range of complex topics with an effortless quality. The title refers to a puzzling clause the two men discuss near the conclusion in reference to an inborn comprehension of linguistic ordering (try rearranging the words and contemplate why it throws things off). But it also taps into the loose structure of the movie's narrative. Hurtling from one topic to another, "Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?" explores the process of hyperactive minds stumbling through a fragmented reality.
As such, it's never fully satisfying as a complete look at any single topic. Chomsky hits on some big ones, including the famed Ship of Theseus paradox -- if every piece of a boat is replaced by a new piece, is it the same boat? -- but such theorizing comes and goes like signposts to remind viewers that the project has scientific legitimacy (a rough cut was screened over a year ago at MIT). Gondry is less interested in arriving at conclusions than in highlighting the liveliness engendered by the search for them. He largely ignores the political dimension of Chomsky's career, but magnifies his personal life, eventually digging into his subject's grief over his late wife. Underneath his logical calculations, Chomsky's the ultimate softie, able to both reckon with reckon with the world and seem humbled by its emotional ramifications.
In his introductory remarks, Gondry blatantly compares his completed project to "A Thorn in the Heart," but it's better described as a quasi-sequel to "Eternal Sunshine," as it returns to the unnerving challenge of battling the limitations of thought at every waking moment. Both movies elegantly blend gentle wit with melancholy. While "Eternal Sunshine" certainly has more polish, "Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?" is like its scrappier, exuberant younger brother. As usual for Gondry, the experience can be too precious for its own good, as the fanciful elements of its design lead to the impression of flipping through a scrapbook filled with half-formed ideas.
Yet that's exactly the key to its appeal: The centerpiece of "Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?" is as much Gondry as Chomsky; the contrast between them wryly juxtaposes measured and chaotic introspection. By extension, its real topic is the elusive nature of all thought processes, and it effectively shares the dual speakers' collective journey without revealing any tangible destination. The movie ends, but the discussion resonates indefinitely.
Criticwire Grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? The documentary world premieres as the closing night of DOC NYC on November 21. IFC Films releases it in New York and Los Angeles this Friday in addition to making it available on iTunes and VOD platforms. Cross-over appeal to Gondry and Chomsky fans should result in a solid opening weekend, while VOD numbers are likely to remain strong in the coming weeks and months.