An eight-year old Australian girl and a mid-forties obese Jewish American man with Asperger’s Syndrome. Seems an unlikely pairing, doesn’t it? And yet Mary and Max, a stop-motion animated movie from Australia, matches the two together with no small measure of wit, and presents us with one of the most original films I’ve seen in some time.
Mary Daisy Dinkle is a poor, plain Australian girl. Her mother’s an alcoholic and a shoplifter, her father pays no attention to her and she has a birthmark on her forehead ‘the colour of pooh’, as she describes it. She has no friends. Her only love is a television show called The Noblets. One day, she happened to be in a post office — her mother was trying to steal envelopes — when she discovers a New York phone book. On a whim, she rips a page and decides to write to one name at random. That name happened to be Max Jerry Horovitz.
Max lives alone, weighs 352 pounds, eats chocolate hot-dogs, plays the lottery, has no friends and also likes The Noblets. The letter from a far off land thrills him — so much so, in fact, that it brings on an anxiety attack — and triggers him to dust off his typewriter and return the favor. This he does, hilariously. He says, “Do you have a favorite-sounding word? My top 5 are ointment, bumblebee, Vladivostok, banana and testicle.” Mary’s father once told her that babies come floating in beer, and she asks whether the same applies in America, or perhaps from cola cans instead. His reply, “Unfortunately, in America, babies are not found in cola cans. I asked my mother when I was four and she said they came from eggs laid by rabbis. If you aren’t Jewish, they’re laid by Catholic nuns. If you’re an atheist, they’re laid by dirty, lonely prostitutes.”
Mary’s mother, in a rare moment of clarity, hides the letter. Mary finds it, however, and instructs Max to write to her care of her neighbor in future. So begins a friendship that survives for twenty years. Mary grows up, still full of self-doubts brought on since childhood — an emotion also suffered by her pen-pal — and continually writes to Max, detailing topics such as her parents death, love, and loneliness. He can’t cry, so she sends him some of her tears in a jar; Mary and Max is that kind of movie.
The movie is narrated by Barry Humphries. He recounts the tale in the style of a wise storyteller: He describes it; we see it. There is humor aplenty, and of a broad enough range to get a smile from anyone. I, personally, thought that there were a few too many pooh/potty jokes, but on the flip side I thought some of the little touches were superb — the mother’s gravestone, for example, reads “Always merry, killed by sherry”, or the fact that the Australian postage stamps had, instead of the Queen’s head, a picture of Dame Edna Everage (Barry Humphries’ alter-ego).
Mary and Max are voiced by Toni Collette and Philip Seymour Hoffman, although you’d never know it. Hoffman, in particular, adopts a heavy, nasal tone for his Jewish New Yorker and succeeds brilliantly. The stop-motion animation is clean and polished. There are no Aardmanesque thumbprints on view here. The world created by writer/director Adam Elliot is monochromatic — everything in Mary’s viewpoint is a washed-out brown, and everything in Max’s is slate grey. This is used to convey the humdrum nature of their lives, or at least how they perceive their lives to be when captured on paper. You’ll see that their lives are, in fact, anything but dull.
Mary and Max aims for pathos and poignancy. It achieves the former easily; I’m not convinced it got to the latter. It’s just too off-the-wall for me to have any empathy for the characters, no matter how hard they tried. Having said that, I’m sure that there are people less battle-hardened than I who will be blubbing and laughing uproariously in equal parts. It’s a quaint, unique, genre-defying movie. I enjoyed it.