MARY AND MAX Sundance Movie Review

     January 16, 2009

Review by Peyton Kellogg

Opening the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, Mary and Max is a claymated tale spanning decades in the pen pal relationship between a fat, middle-aged, Asperger’s-suffering man in New York and an uncomfortably nerdy young girl down under in Melbourne. It’s a film that’s easy to admire. But actually enjoying it? That’s a bit more difficult.

It’s 1976 and 8 year-old Mary Dinkle is a fairly typical suburban outsider, retreating into an introverted life in which a cartoon inspires her more than anything, even so far as to recreating characters from the show out of found items and junk. But her life changes forever when she discovers a New York phonebook at the library and blindly picks one name out of it in the hopes of finding a pen pal and beginning a correspondence. As fate would have it, her puffy little finger lands on the name of Max Horowitz, a fortysomething Jewish man living in the Big Apple.

The on-again/off-again long distance relationship between Max (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Mary (Toni Collette) covers the gambit of life’s potholes in pretty unrelenting fashion and surprising honesty for what, on the surface, would appear to be a family film. Sex, violence, death, isolation, abandonment, alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide all take their turns lurking around the edges of the frame, creating an uncomfortably dark tone for most of the film’s running time, especially in contrast to Mary and Max’s charming first act. It’s not that these topics should be avoided in any genre, even one embraced by children. It’s that Mary and Max wallows in this glum territory for so long, and with so little relief, that even the indelible beauty of its images or bravery of its intent can’t override a feeling of depression and anti-climax that sets in with the film’s second half. Part of the disconnect could be blamed on the film’s heavy reliance on Barry Humphries’ narration. It’s smartly-written and deftly-delivered but it’s also a constant reminder that we’re merely observers in this world and in tandem with the minimal dialogue from Max and Mary themselves, it only serves to keep their characters at an unfortunate distance.

Written, directed and designed by the unquestionably talented Aussie filmmaker Adam Elliot, Mary and Max lives in a stylistic neighborhood a few blocks down the street from Tim Burton, Henry Selick and Nick Park and just a couple alleys over from David Lynch, Jeunet & Caro and the Brothers Quay. It’s a world of childhoods darkened by the realities of life, where innocence is unsafe from the demons of impending adulthood, whether you’re an awkward little girl coming of age or a simple-minded manchild running out the clock. The delicately-crafted and sometimes over-precious art of Mary and Max is not in question: It’s simply gorgeous to look at and is lovingly rendered. But at its heart is really a whimsical story of love and compassion that never quite breaks away from the gravity of the overindulgent darkness haunting the bulk of this film.

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