It’s easy to greet the prospect of Michel Gondy making a doodle movie about the ideas of Noam Chomsky like that aggrieved nerd on The Simpsons: “Ugh, why does it have be zany?”
Not since Chomsky humored wingnut conservative Alex Jones by sitting for a long-form radio interview has the 84-year-old linguist, political commentator, cognitive scientist, activist, and all-around good guy been so weirdly paired up as he is here. Proceeding from some half-baked idea that making a conventional movie about the author of Manufacturing Consent would be inherently disingenuous, as every cut is a lie and every meaning ascribable not to the film’s subject, but to its director, Gondry proceeds to laboriously hand-animate a series of conversations conducted with Chomsky over the past few years. Given that these morphing, mercurial sketches are even more beholden to Gondry’s halfway-grating/halfway-charming personality of wide-eyed, quasi-autistic bemusement, the whole wacky setup comes off like an intellectual contrivance. It would have been more honest for Gondry simply to say, “I wanted to draw it.”
Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? offers no great insight anyone halfway familiar with Chomsky’s massive body of work. It plays like a greatest-hits compilation, with Chomsky working through his ideas on language acquisition, generative grammar, Israel, and so on. Gondry’s flustered, fanboy-ish interview style yields some worthwhile results, as when he asks Chomsky about the first memory of his life. It leads to an anecdote about a young Noam refusing to swallow his oatmeal, which plays like the origin story of a free-thinking dissident. Later, Chomsky is pressed on what makes him happy, and struggles to come up with a response.
Gondry’s squiggling animations—loaded with puns and cutesy-poo jokes—don’t really square with the subject though. While polite, and of course exceptionally intelligent, both Chomsky’s ideas and his personality resist this sort of frivolity. Gondry’s attempts to further invigorate the movie by documenting his own misgivings about the project, and especially the intensiveness of all the drawing, feel rather obviously like eager attempts to match Chomsky’s intellect. Instead, they route the film into metanarrative dead-ends, distracting instead of enlightening.
Gondry may set out to pay dutiful service to a thinker he clearly very much admires. But his insistence on inserting himself into narrative—and on creating a “narrative” at all—only reaffirms the primacy of his wobbly authorial hand. Like Gael García Bernal’s irrepressible dreamer in The Science of Sleep, or, even more so, like that fake Onion headline, “Michel Gondry Entertained for Days By New Cardboard Box,” the filmmaker loses himself (and the viewer) in his own zany indulgences.
Berlinale runs from February 6—16.