Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?

At the beginning of Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?, director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep, The Green Hornet) informs us, at length, that after an extended period of creative stagnation, he'd been looking for a project to get him back on track. As a great admirer of Noam Chomsky, Gondry set up a series of interviews with the renowned American linguist and philosopher, intending to return to his roots in animation and create a hand-drawn rendering of their talks. Gondry tells us outright that he considers the result to be more of an “animated conversation” than a documentary, but no matter what you call it, Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? isn't much of a film.

Gondry acknowledges early on that there are already plenty of movies featuring Chomsky talking into a camera about his ideas. The imaginative French director asserts that he doesn't want to make another one of these because he believes that most such documentaries end up being more about the filmmaker than the subject. To a large extent, I agree, but what Gondry chooses to do instead only magnifies this problem. He uses his interviews with Chomsky to create a film that is intentionally all about his own ideas and artistic process, and it comes off as a masturbatory exercise with seemingly little relevance to anyone other than the filmmaker himself. Though Chomsky is willing to sit and talk to just about anyone who asks, and I'm willing to sit and watch pretty much any movie put in front of me, I couldn't help feeling that Gondry had wasted two precious afternoons of an 84-year-old man's life, not to mention two hours of mine.

The film’s conversation is an awkwardly one-sided affair, which squanders any potential for an interesting dialogue between an unwaveringly logical cognitive scientist and a surrealistically creative visual artist (a promising colloquy between right and left brain). Gondry seems to care more about his approach to the movie than in having meaningful, substantive discussions with Chomsky. The sound of him hand-cranking his 16mm Bolex camera and turning it on and off at random points during the interviews makes it seem like Gondry isn’t or participating fully in the conversation. As a result, the 90-minute film never goes beyond the most rudimentary concepts of logic and semantics, with a few dull anecdotes about Chomsky’s development as a thinker tossed in. Gondry’s imperfect English further hobbles any exploration of linguistics the two might have, although the director appears to have the erroneous belief that the language barrier actually opens up all kinds of fascinating and unexpected avenues that enrich their conversations.

In the end, the film's most serious flaw is the failure of Gondry’s animations to illustrate, illuminate, or expand upon any of Chomsky’s ideas. To the contrary, his drawings often muddle the meanings behind the intellectual concepts, and even when they don't, they're so distracting that it's impossible to focus on whatever topic is being discussed. I often found my thoughts drifting to films that more effectively complement spoken ideas with visual illustrations, like Richard Linklater’s 2001 film Waking Life--which also isn't a very good movie, but it can far better lay claim to the title of an “animated conversation.” 

I also wondered what it would be like to take a genuinely fascinating cinematic conversation, like the one between Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn in My Dinner with André, and overlay it with this type of hand-drawn animation. I’m fairly sure that forcing a two-dimensional representation of an animator’s ideas onto viewers would deprive us of our own imaginative experience, thereby stripping much of the power and poetry from that film. My Dinner with André is not a filmed conversation that a director then turned into a movie. The stars/writers of that movie, in conjunction with director Luis Malle, transform their personal conversations into a narrative work of art--which makes their dialogue feel active and spontaneous, rather than a lifeless recording that requires further augmentation. In Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?, the filmmaker really is the whole show and the discussion with his subject feels almost incidental. Gondry has made wondrously inventive music videos and short films using music and narration as springboards for his visual ideas, but it's hard for me to imagine any single animator being able to sustain this type of magic over the course of a feature-length movie.

Directed by Michel Gondry
Produced by Michel Gondry, Raffi Adlan, Georges Bermann, and Julie Fong

Written by Michel Gondry

With: Michel Gondry, and Noam Chomsky

Editing: Sophie Reine and Adam M. Weber

Runtime: 88 min
Release Date: 21 November 2013
Aspect Ratio: Multiple