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Take This Sinking Boat And Point It Home

By Brian Prisco | Film | January 17, 2011 |

By Brian Prisco | Film | January 17, 2011 |

As a child, I loved the twisted works of Shel Silverstein and Roald Dahl. Rather than the lame ass, wrapping a moral around sparkly ponies or talking farm equipment that most children’s stories rely on, they seemed more edgy. You learned a lesson, or got your warm fuzzies at the end of their works, but there was a naughty and kind of sinister edge. My favorite story was “George’s Marvelous Medicine,” which was essentially the account of an eight-year-old child who destroys his grandmother with the use of household chemicals. There was no moral at the end. It was simply insane and dastardly fun. Horrible, horrible things happened, including death and cruelty, but that’s there in life too.

I mention this because as a genre, animation often gets sloughed off as a means to use brainwashing and bright colors to market toys to drooling children. But there are some very mature and heartbreaking cartoons that are never meant for children to watch. And I’m not talking about the tentacle-raping Pokemonstrosities or the stoner fare filling slots on Adult Swim (not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Adam Elliot won an Oscar in 2004 with his beautifully depressing animated short “Harvie Krumpet,” about the tumultuous life of a sad immigrant with social deviancy issues. The logical extension of this work became Mary and Max, an incredibly bittersweet tale about two lonely people who form a friendship. It wavers between poignant and absurdist, kind of like a very special episode of “Axe Cop.” There’s a childlike naivete and innocence to both Mary, a little Australian girl, and Max, a New York Jew with Aspergers, but also cut with a sense of cynicism and awfulness. The fact that this is stop-motion animation, beautifully done in black and white with small touches in color — akin to Schindler’s List — is a boon to the project. Had this been shot live action, it would just be dreary and melancholy. But because it’s happening to goofy little Aardmanesque clay figures, it gives it just the right sense of detachment where you can love the characters for all their foibles and the awful experiences they endure rather than feel dragged through their own hells. It’s not a happy little film, but it’s certainly a rich and sweet one.

A narrator (Barry Humphries, who most folks would know better as Dame Edna) speaks over the entire piece in a gruff grumbly baritone, like a beer-swilling uncle or a frowny, farting grandfather, giving the film the feel of a fractured fairy-tale or a bedtime story told in a boozy breath. Young Mary Dinkle (Bethany Whitmore and Toni Collette) is a friendless eight-year-old with a pet rooster named Ethel, a frumpy pair of glasses, and a birthmark on her forehead that looks like poo. Her father fills teabags and spends his spare time doing amateur taxidermy in a shed, and her mother is an alcoholic shoplifter who “borrows” and constantly “tests the sherry.” Again, the film is full of little whimsical quirks that outside of an animation would seem hipster precious, but add to the surrealism and overwhelming ludicrousness of the piece. Her grandfather tells her that in Australia, babies are found at the bottom of beer glasses. Wondering how babies are born in America, she decides to ask an American, so she chooses a name at random from a phone book and sends her first letter, along with a crayon self-portrait, to Max Horowitz.

Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a 44-year old severely overweight Jew living alone in his fusty apartment in New York. He attends Overeaters Anonymous meetings, which are his only social interactions because of his odd mannerisms and unusual way of looking at the world. He keeps numerous pets, watches children’s programs, and eats a steady diet of Jewish foods like kugel and latkes in between chocolate hotdogs. He receives Mary’s letter, and writes back to her on his old typewriter, telling him about himself and his theory of how babies are born, which he learned from his mother: Jewish people come from eggs hatched by rabbis, Christians comes from eggs hatched by nuns, and atheists are hatched by prostitutes. Even for a kooky New Yorker, Max’s ideas and quirks seem a little bizarre, and it is later he discovers that he has Asperger’s syndrome.

At this point, the film seems like it’s going to take a turn for the “Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret?” with Mary asking Max questions. But because Max has never known how to live a normal life, and because Mary is just a child, the two of them take this heartwrenching and heartwarming path where they become each other’s only other friends. It’s sad and strange, as Max’s skewed views get filtered through Mary’s childlike thought processes, and they both grow into their own people. Whenever you worry that the film is going to get overly sentimental or fall into a sudden pothole of cliche, Elliot takes his script in devastating directions, unafraid to send his characters hurtling down dark corridors.

That might actually be the one strongest complaint about the film — that it heads down a really dark and twisty road into alcoholism and death and misery and heartbreak. Mary and Max aren’t always each other ports in the storm, sometimes they unintentionally wound each other with their words. It’s not a romance, but it’s a love story, if that makes sense, and they, too, cause each other laughter and tears, despite their distance in both age and geography. They’re never going to be a couple, they’re never going to have sexual feelings towards each other, which would be a weirdly creepy Harold and Maude mistake. But they still have massive impacts on each other’s lives.

In fact, Mary and Max owes a lot to Harold and Maude, capitalizing on that film’s wonderful grim sense of humor and age dichotomy. Even when things get maudlin and woeful — there is no Cat Stevens to alleviate the misery in Australia, kiddos — their buoyed by this sense of love between the two characters, who only truly have each other. The voiceover work is wonderful, featuring the talents of Humphries, Hoffman, Collette and Eric Bana, who are virtually unrecognizable in their efforts. For once it was less about which star is what talking car and more about getting solid performances. Elliot takes us down a dark and lonesome road, but he gives us hope at the end of it instead of a light. It’s not a shiny happy fairy tale where everyone ends up happily ever after. But there is some happiness. And maybe that’s all we can ask for.

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