By Eric Kohn | Indiewire November 18, 2013 at 12:0AM
At one point in "Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? An Animated Conversation With Noam Chomsky," Michel Gondry's free-roaming animated portrait of his discussions with the famed MIT linguist, the filmmaker makes it clear that the chief audience he hopes to please is his subject. Gondry, who narrates the documentary throughout, explains his desire during production to complete the project before the octogenarian Chomsky dies. The revolutionary thinker, who turns 85 this December, showed no signs of a premature departure, but Gondry's admission suggests the deadline mainly reflects his own mortal fears. It's a tender observation that taps into the self-defined urgency behind his creative drive, providing a reminder that the capricious nature of his work obscures far more substantial philosophical inquiry.
It also connects the seemingly loose, blithe style of Gondry's hand drawn framing device with the typically pensive Chomsky at the story's center. A rather bizarre mismatch on paper, Gondry's eccentric look at Chomsky's intellectual proclivities leads to a thoughtful examination of both director and star. In its introductory sequence, the director explains (with a handily subtitled voiceover he provides to wade through his thick French accent) his attraction to Chomsky's ideas about the secrets of the human mind after encountering several of his books. For Gondry, whose initial narrative features "Human Nature" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" took cues from the epistemologically off-beat screenplays of Charlie Kaufman, the prospects of talking through Chomsky's intellect has personal stakes. But it's also a welcome excuse, after his large scale and poorly received efforts "The Green Hornet" and "Mood Indigo," to change things up.
The gamble pays off: "Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?" bears the stamp of Gondry quirk but allows it to feel a lot more intimate than anything he's done since "Eternal Sunshine." While Gondry previously made a personal diary film with 2009's "The Thorn in the Heart," a delicate look at his "Auntie," this latest project has universal access points. Gondry constantly shifts between Chomsky's psychological insights and audio from their ongoing discussions, which unfolded over the course of several months. As a result, "Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?" becomes an amusing chronicle of their relationship: Gondry, the restless inquisitive amateur, constantly assails the gravelly-voiced Chomsky with questions about nature versus nurture and other pertinent topics, though no overarching agenda takes hold. Rather than crafting a seminal overview of Chomsky's career, Gondry magnifies his fascination with the older man's intelligence.
The outcome is a close cousin of "The Pervert's Guide to Ideology" (itself a sequel to "The Pervert's Guide to Cinema"), which involves fellow academic superstar Slavoj Zizek dressing up in costumes while discussing the theoretical underpinnings of popular art. Although Chomsky never wears any outlandish garb, Gondry turns him into a cartoonish abstraction along with everything else in sight. Even as Gondry whimsically films his subject with a 16mm Bolex, he only appears in frames within frames surrounded by Gondry's animated artwork. More often, the thinker is one of innumerable brightly colored line drawings that wiggle about as they provide a giddy manifestation of Chomsky's arguments. Emphasizing a green and red palette against a black backdrop, Gondry's aesthetic creates the impression of sharp observations piercing through the mire of reality.
Even when it gets heavy, though, "Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?" remains above all committed to a sense of play. Gondry relies on terrific visual gags to illustrate their ongoing conversations. In one of the more amusing exchanges, Gondry asks the atheistic Chomsky about the etiquette of dealing with spiritual convictions -- particularly in the context of Gondry's disdain for his girlfriend's astrology fixation, which he can't help but mock. To his surprise, Chomsky says it's "not an idiotic" belief, just an irrational one, a crucial distinction that has revelatory possibilities even while generating an amusing punchline in the context of Gondry's domestic issues.
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.