A Friend in Need

Mary and Max

on January 16, 2009 by Cathleen Rountree

Sundance Opening Night audiences demand a lot of our virgin viewing experience--the first of 10 days. But, more often than not, like that first youthful sexual encounter, we end up disappointed. (Remember last year’s completely overrated In Bruges, anyone?) This year’s selection, the clay animation feature Mary and Max surpasses the brilliant British Wallace and Gromit series and lacks the relentlessly bizarre clay animation of both the surreal Czech-born master Jan Švankmajer and his American progeny, the Brothers Quay. But even if you’re not a fan of the stop motion animation technique, head for the nearest theatre featuring the latest offering from Adam Elliot, the Academy Award-winning Australian writer/director, whose Harvie Krumpet won the Oscar for Best Animated Short. You won’t be sorry, but you will be stirred to the quick by a wide-range of emotions. Expect Mary and Max to collect critical kudos and secure a commercial coup.

In 1977, eight-year-old Mary Daisy Dinkle barely survives a Melbourne suburban existence that includes a shop-lifting, cooking sherry-imbibing mother, a balding factory-working, amateur taxidermist father, a devoted chicken named Ethel and a gang of mercilessly teasing classmates. Mary (who bears more than a passing resemblance to the comic strip character Little Lulu, with her dark hair, beady eyes, and sullen expression) has eyes the “color of muddy puddles”--hidden behind over-sized black-framed glasses--and, in the middle of her forehead, a birthmark “the color of poo.” She eats too many chocolate hotdogs and luxuriates in drinking sweetened condensed milk, while lost in television-land.

A universe away, in New York City, lives Max Jerry Horowitz, a 44-year-old, 340-pound, reclusive, anxiety-ridden, Jewish atheist, who would rather live someplace quiet (like the moon) and seek answers to questions such as: do worms go to heaven? And, why do old ladies have blue hair? When Jerry learns the name for his condition: Asperger’s Syndrome, he greets the news with humor and a sort of pride by referring to himself as an “Aspie.”

Looking to find answers to her own questions (What is love? Where do babies come from?) Mary randomly picks Max's name out of a phone book in the post office and writes to him. Thus, an unlikely pen pal relationship begins and, as Mary hungrily drinks his words “like a bowl of alphabet soup,” through the power of the written word, a friendship evolves between two lonely souls lost in their unique but complimentary eccentricities.

At times, the humor in Mary and Max is so original and off the charts, it reminds me of 84 Charring Cross Road on acid. But through Elliot’s gifted sense of poetry and immense aesthetic artistry, Mary and Max answers affirmatively, and quite genuinely, the question: Is there someone for everyone? One of the gifts of adulthood is that we deeply understand and appreciate this fact: We are born into our families, but we choose our friends. The unlikely 20-year friendship between these two vastly different, yet curiously similar individuals proves the theory.

Distributor: Icon Entertainment International
Cast: Toni Collette, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Humphries and Eric Bana
Director/Screenwriter: Adam Elliot
Producer: Melanie Coombs
Genre: Animated Feature
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 92 min.
Release date: Unset

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