Two predicating circumstances of Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? worth mentioning are Michel Gondry’s admission that he wants to capture some of Noam Chomsky’s wisdom before the tireless MIT linguist’s death, and that Chomsky has probably never seen one of Gondry’s films. The filmmaker’s first-person prologue introduces an inherent sin of the documentary format: Even to an eye as cultivated as Gondry’s, a talking head unencumbered by obvious manipulations in editing will be received by the viewer as telling the truth. Gondry’s way around this—which isn’t to call Chomsky into question so much as to acknowledge the layers of context needed—is to render Chomsky’s anecdotes and thoughts in hand-drawn protoplasms, his mellifluous voice giving a foundation for accompanying neon cartoons as the conversation shrinks and expands.
Despite Chomsky’s position as a lodestar on the left, he and Gondry are mostly loath to talk politics; instead, Chomsky holds court on his life growing up in Philadelphia (his father was a renowned scholar of Hebrew), observations on education and urban planning, and on his definition of the word lore as “unarticulated, accumulated knowledge.” Gondry and Chomsky’s divergent notions of the basic tools every human being carries with them into their comprehension of the world are what keeps the conversation juiced. Sometimes the madcap auteur’s Sharpee animations comment silently on Chomsky’s thoughts, like how the Charles River bordering his office remains the Charles River every day even if the water that constitutes it is different at any given moment. Since both men know it as the Charles River despite this constant flux, Chomsky introduces his notion of “psychic continuity”—how we know things are what they are, even if they appear conditioned otherwise.
When Chomsky continues that the only way the Charles River can become something other than the Charles River is when it’s dried out and paved over, Gondry’s hand gleefully erases its own pulsating streams and quickly sketches yet another smog-congested superhighway onramp in its place. Picking Chomsky’s brain, Gondry’s meticulously constructed persona as a bumbling Frenchman isn’t merely self-effacing, because it requires Chomsky to chip his thoughts down to basic examples like these—enabling a jazz-like fluidity that makes the film the opposite of a lecture. The two disagree (and the visuals can slyly, cutely reflect a certain conversational logjam), but it’s never on ideas or policies—rather, on the clarity or the quality of their digressions.
When Gondry asks Chomsky about his earliest memory, Chomsky chuckles recalling his three-year-old self refusing to chew his oatmeal; the screen is flooded one line at a time with the looped image of a sprightly doodled little boy in suspenders moving a lump up and down in his cheek, an image that formulates itself just as easily as it breaks apart and morphs into a new diagram. Chomsky sends Gondry “back to the drawing board” more than once, but the director’s openness about tailoring the talks to suit his animations reinforces, again, that this isn’t supposed to be a documentary. Plunging further into their talks, Gondry reveals his capacity for animation of topics both playful and solemn, like Chomsky’s recollections of pro-Nazi Irish immigrant communities in his childhood neighborhood or parallels between Jewish refugees displaced in World War II and the itinerant Roma communities in France.
Chomsky appears striding between skyscrapers with an impossibly big smile on his face, before his jaw clenches and the real Chomsky posits that all a person does is walk around all day talking to themselves internally. (Gondry assents.) At one point he refuses—embarrassedly, but mainly out of courtesy—to discuss his wife’s death. Gondry illustrates the ensuing grumbling and deferral with a picture of the Chomskys riding bikes together superimposed among the clouds, a rare syrupy mismatch between the filmmaker and his interviewee. But no topic feels forced or tokenized, sticking out too long or speedily blasting through itself. For the most part, their collaboration is a magnificently quizzical diagram of two ceaselessly inquiring minds in perfect tandem, like a raw X-ray of atomized creativity.