Dueling Film Reviews - Round One: WHayes on Max and Mary

Posted 11/12/2010 by WHayes in Labels: , , , , ,
How much can you stand to see someone put-upon? More specifically, when it comes to movies, what's your misery threshold?

"Dark." "Edgy." "Haunting." "Gritty." "Subversive." Industry buzz words tailored to describe the illusion that the film you're watching is somehow made all the better through subjecting its characters to random and heartbreaking misery simply for misery's sake. It's a practice no less superficial than giving a comic-book heroine a rape backstory, and is one Adam Elliot's Mary and Max dives wholeheartedly into. Inspired by the director's 20+ year pen-friendship, the story follows lonely 8 year old Mary Daisy Dinkle through 20 years of her own correspondence with her spiritual kin, Max Jerry Horowitz, age 44.

Their world is wholly unpleasant. That picture? That's Mary's alcoholic mother, Vera. Her father works at a tea bag factory, her nose is big and unwanted like the birthmark marring her forehead, and her only pleasures in life are cartoons and condensed milk. Obese, neurotic Max isn't much better. All this nastiness gets enhanced, mind you, through depicting Mary's life in sepia tones, while Max get's black and white. The color red holds some undefined symbolic place in Mary's aesthetic stew, but we aren't missing much by leaving the connection unexplained; whatever Elliot explained would likely be as ham-fisted as every other statement the film tries.

If you guessed that the moral of the story was "we can't choose our lives, but can choose our friends," well done. It was telegraphed from the moment the narrator first described Mary's birthmark as "the color of poo." A lonely misfit who finds some form of joy in the world? Novel, indeed. I will give the movie credit, though. The array of flaming hoops they make our heroes dance through was well-imagined: Mary's parents die, her childhood crush-cum-husband leaves her for another man (he made her wedding dress, if you needed some foreshadowing), and some of her letters open up Max's repressed childhood memories, sending him to a mental institution for eight months. Life is war, and war is hell.

I'll give Elliot further props for choosing claymation. Embedding a serious story in the skin of something benign is a proven tactic for subverting audience expectations, but when you introduce your primary protagonist a having a birthmark "the color of poo" (can you tell how much that annoyed me?), you create a counter-expectation that the rest of the film won't pack too heavy an emotional punch. This very problem forms a through-line for the rest of the film: what exactly am I supposed to take seriously here?

Sure, your story may be about the resillience of friendship in the sake of nearly impossible hardship, but what good is the message if everything else drives people away before they realize it? The reason audiences cherish Pixar movies is because they're clever about their philosophies. If you lose the subtlety that could really let a message simmer within an audience in favor of beating them over the head with it, if you skip even implied rationale for certain aesthetic (and definitely for plot) choices, you come across preciously earnest -- "look at this gritty magical realism! Such suffering!" -- and thus push the audience away from your desired effect.. Dark for dark's sake doesn't work, but Mary and Max does give it a good try.

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