Friday, January 28, 2011

Feet of Clay

I've been looking for a way to write about Mary and Max (2009, directed by Adam Elliot) for a few weeks now. It's a movie that seems like it's universally loved--certainly my correspondents have sang rapturous praises for it--but frankly, I hated it. I've been puzzling through my reasons for a while now, particularly in the face of the near unanimous praise the movie has received.

The movie itself is a claymation account of the long correspondence between two miserable people. Mary is a lonely eight year old in Australia with a "poo-colored" birthmark on her forehead. Searching for friends, she picks Max's name at random from a New York phone book and writes to him. Max is an obese New Yorker with Asperger's syndrom, who gets panic attacks from Mary's letters. Even so, he writes her back. Mary and Max never actually meet. Circumstances conspire against this. Each goes through surprising life changes. Max is institutionalized at one point; the air conditioner of his apartment falls from the wall and kills a mime; he wins the lottery. Mary for her part grows up, marries a man who leaves her for a sheep rancher, writes a book on Asperger's Syndrome, and attempts suicide. The movie obviously goes into dark places, and it refuses an easy accommodation with audience expectations.

This very much has an underground comix feeling to it. Elliot has imbued his characters with any number of the biological foibles of "real" people, but in doing so, he moves his film from dark to grotesque. Most of the jokes in the movie are predicated on this grotesquerie. This, by itself, wouldn't necessarily rub me the wrong way. I mean, the Coens have been indulging in grotesquerie for years and it doesn't bother me. There are two things about the way Elliot goes about it, though, that bother the hell out of me.

First: Mary and Max has a narrator (Barry Humphries), and the narrator has a dry delivery that is vaguely condescending. The structure of the film makes the narrator do all the heavy lifting, too, since both Mary and Max are essentially passive. Lots of scenes in the movie consist of the camera watching Mary or Max while the narrator explains some element of their lives, then it usually cuts away to a sight gag. I found all of this alienating. I didn't LIKE either Mary or Max, and for a film that's as drenched in sentiment as this one is, that's a fatal failing.

Second, and more personally: I'm kind of a priss. I recognize this, but this self-knowledge doesn't change how I react to things. I get kind of ooged out by bodily functions. I mean, I can watch dismemberments and decapitations galore and beg for more, but show someone vomiting or defecating or generally making a mess on themselves with food and I tend to tune out. Scatalogical jokes bother me. I fucking hate fart jokes. Mary and Max is full of scatological humor, and the cumulative effect of it over the course of the movie filled me more with disgust than with sympathy for our characters. Realistically, I wonder how much of it was really necessary. But then, it's all of a piece with the look of the film: the Australian scenes are filmed through what I presume is meant to be a shit-stained filter, while the New York scenes amplify every negative stereotype of the Big Apple as a gray, drab, depressing place.

In any event, I found the movie to be ugly, even taking into account the fact that it's supposed to be ugly.


Ivan said...

Dr. Morbius,
My gripes about Mary & Max are not quite your gripes, but I'm so happy someone else was not enamored with this flick (and I'm a fan of Adam Elliot's animation shorts).
While I think all the scenes with Max are essentially uplifting despite their grim subject matter, Mary's scenes only get more and more depressing--and there is no reason this poor little girl should be treated so brutally, she has done nothing to deserve this, and to me, even the ending was a slap in the unfortunate woman's face.
And if Mary's life was supposed to be a retelling of The Book of Job, then what is Max doing in it? I think the problem (for me) was that Max's misfortunes were all presented in the past-tense (they already happened, Max lived through it, he can now comment on it rationally and sardonically), while Mary's happened in the "now," and we have to experience the pain with her; there was no distancing element for me.
I would have preferred if director Elliot had concentrated on a 45-minute short centering on Max.

Jeez, thanks for letting me babble on...

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Ivan.

I agree with you about the way it presents the suffering of Max and Mary, now that you've articulated it. That's all of a piece with my other discomforts with the movie. Your comment at the end is spot on, too. I think this would have worked better as a short film.

Thanks for babbling.