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Monday, 20 April 2009

Mary & Max

When Adam Elliot won the Academy Award for his animated short film Harvie Krumpet in 2004 it was a little hard to see where his career would go next. A quirky mix of comedy and pathos made Krumpet hard to categorise, and Elliot's use of labour- and time-intensive stop-motion animation a la Wallace & Grommit didn't lend itself to either quick cash-in follow-ups or second-guesses once the production ball was rolling. And yet, watching his first feature-length film Mary & Max, it all seems so obvious where Elliot would go. Mary (the voice of Toni Collette) is a quiet, shy girl growing up in a dysfunctional household in an unimpressive Melbourne suburb in the 1970s. Not surprisingly, a lack of real human contact of any kind leads her to write to a person picked out at random from a New York phone book in the hope that they'll write back. That person turns out to be Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a fairly strange and obsessive individual who isn't without his own form of charm. And so begins a back and forth communication that spans the globe and twenty years, following Mary as she grows up, falls in love and becomes an adult, and Max as he wins the lottery and visits a mental institution or two. This tale of two very different but equally quirky individuals finding each other without ever actually meeting is extremely funny, heart-crushingly sad and - where possible - both at the same time. Elliot's quirky character designs turn out to be perfect for the story he's telling, while the story's wild shifts in tone (rarely has "you'll laugh, you'll cry" been more appropriate) work thanks to the constant focus on those characters. It's not a big story or a classic story, but it is a story where the people come first and that (plus an extremely big heart) makes this a film to warm to.

Anthony Morris (this review first appeared in Forte #451)