Unrated, but it would get a pretty solid R if I had to guess. Don't assume animation is for everybody. This is a movie that deals with mental illness, suicide, alcohol addiction, sexuality, prostitution, bullying, and more. It treats religion kind of like a joke. Really, there's almost an attempt to be edgy to a certain point. I'm not talking about South Park style humor, but the movie does cover some pretty heavy topics throughout the film. Regardless, unrated.
DIRECTOR: Adam Elliot
*sigh* I know. Any list of the greatest anything is going to be subjective. I have always been obsessed with completing lists. I don't know what it is about me. Part of it comes from the fact that I trust the great canon of both books and films. And for the most part, these lists have gotten me to watch some absolutely stunning and important cinema. They challenged me to get out of my comfort zone and to educate myself. But this scratch-off movie poster list? Man, the subjective entries are really subjective. On this list of 100 films, I have to guess that ten of them are really just the creator's favorite movies, regardless of actual influence on cinematic history. I know. I'm being flippant towards Mary and Max and I'm sure that there's a community out there that is obsessed with this movie. But between Mary and Max and 3 Idiots, I get the vibe that there were some personal favorites that were thrown in that might not be as revolutionary as the poster implies.
I'm going to be coming at this movie pretty hard. It's not that I hated it, but I was rolling my eyes pretty hard. I know that Adam Elliott did basically everything on this movie. He wrote the script; he did the art. You know, everything? But Sweet Christmas, I don't think I've seen such a mismatch of content to form before. The film starts off with the phrase "Based on a True Story." For the sake of time, I'm not going to look up what really happened. I have a baby trying to find me and I have seconds to write this thing. But if this is a true story, for the most part, there's something really compelling about this story. The story itself can do so much legwork on this film. But then there's Elliott's style of art. Adam Elliott is an artist who wants to show off his quirky sense of visual claymation. In terms of skill, it's all there. But Elliott is a guy who stands in his own way to tell a story. One of the first things about storytelling is that there are good ideas that just don't belong in this story. Every storyteller runs into that problem. They have this image in their heads and, upon execution, realize that it doesn't quite gel with the story that they are telling. The rookie storyteller powers through, fearing that their precious moment might have to be scrapped. But a veteran storyteller will realize that this moment can go somewhere else. It is added to the bag of tricks and done later. It feels like the entire visual aesthetic of Mary and Max is an attempt to distract us from a perfectly serviceable story.
Mary is an absolutely sweet little kid who leads kind of a sad and quirky life. I don't deny that Elliott should stress the quirkiness. But the things that Elliott adds for the sake of bleak humor detracts from the real emotional resonance of the story. For example, Mary apparently had a rooster as a child. That rooster is in the entire movie. Any time the movie has a chance to be vulnerable, the rooster does something macabre and inappropriate. It's there for a laugh, but the story is plenty on its own. The same thing holds true for Max. Max deals with initially undiagnosed Asperger's Syndrome. While some of his observations, because they are through the eyes of a person with Asperger's, come off as funny or odd. These are things from his letters. But Elliott makes Max this character who comes across as completely unrelatable. There are moments in his life where it almost feels like Elliott is making fun of Max, which seems to be the exact opposite point than the story is supposed to make. At one point, Max is committed to a mental institution for nine months, leaving Mary to think that she was alone again. Instead of letting us breathe in this moment, we instead get a bunch of dark jokes about what is done inside a mental institution.
And this all leads me to the problem of trying too hard. I mean, this movie tries and tries. It's a showpiece for the artist rather than servicing the story itself. Toni Colette and Philip Seymour Hoffman are great, as usual. But they completely are drowned out by distracting visuals that are trying to show off the creator, Adam Elliott. It's not like there aren't stories for this kind of visual art. I'm thinking of the works of R. Crumb when I discuss this. But there's something in this story that is being blocked. I think there is no more important moment than when Mary attempts to commit suicide. Mary's parents are characters out of something created by Tim Burton. Maybe Beetlejuice or Edward Scissorhands. I'm dancing around the idea that they are caricatures of real people. But Mary, for all of her weird quirks, kind of feels like a real person. She has real dreams and asperations. She has a character arc that builds her to being successful, due in part to her correspondence with Max. Mom is only described as drinking sherry until she dies and Dad is only described as being into taxidermy until he dies. When Mary is at a high point in her career, she upsets Max and spirals into a dark place for her. She becomes her mother, drinking sherry all day and watching the Nobletts. Her husband runs off with another man and she is left alone to commit suicide. It's a really depressing part of the movie.
But because the entire film has this tone of misery throughout the story, that scene has little emotional resonance. Even Mary's high point is saturated in this grey fog that exists in a world of ugliness. Instead of having this juxtaposition between Mary's success and Mary's attempted suicide, it just feels like more of the same. Max has a similar low point. While Max's character is more static compared to Mary's, he does make some growth. He is proud that he has made a friend and that keeps him motivated to becoming a healthier human being. (He doesn't succeed, but we root for the notion that Max wanting to take risks is important.) But at one point, in a rage against Mary for writing a book about him, he accosts a homeless person asking for money outside of his apartment for littering. (This is a Max thing.) This moment needed to breathe. It's Max's low. He went from being harmless and alone to escalating to a violent member of society. That's no good, but Elliott decided to focus on making the homeless person as grotesque as possible. The story called for Max to destroy something innocent and Elliott, with the obsession with style, robbed that moment of its importance. Rather than Max seeing his own crime through the destruction of another person in his situation, we have Max almost ridding the world of a creature unworthy of life. And that character keeps on showing up. We get silly signs from that homeless person throughout the film after that, as if the assault wasn't traumatic in the least. Come on, there are moments where vulnerability goes a long way.
Which leads to the touching part of the movie: the Death of Max. There's all this lead up to Mary and Max meeting and Max dies hours before Mary gets there? That's heartbreaking and the movie actually kind of pulls it off. But it is a nerfed version of what should have happened. The movie does everything it can to force us out of relating to these characters. It's almost like Bertold Brecht made this film (look that reference up, kids!) and wanted us to remind ourselves that this is a story, not reality. There was such potential with this movie and I get why the poster guy likes it. It's just that the filmmaker kept getting in his own way. I hate talking negatively about one person so much, but this was an exercise that just got out of hand. I really didn't care for this movie.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.