Dueling Film Reviews - Round Two: JDub on WHayes

Posted 11/19/2010 by JDub in
In his post last week on Adam Elliot's "Mary and Max," WHayes asserted in no uncertain terms that the film is overly miserable, depicts a "wholly unpleasant" world, and is ultimately "dark for dark's sake." I can agree with half of each of these statements: the film is indeed miserable at times, their world is indeed unpleasant at times, and the film is fairly dark at times.

But for some reason, WHayes fails to mention the film's moments of discovery, joy, elation, progress, personal growth, and dreams realized. I believe Elliot has created a far more balanced film experience here than that for which he's being given credit.

We'll begin with the poo-colored birthmark that so irks my colleague. At first, Mary is teased on the playground for her birthmark, true, and that enhances the misery of her situation. However, through her correspondence with Max, Mary receives advice on how to deal with her bully, and she is all smiles (less miserable) when the advice works perfectly and her bully is duly put in his place.

And what about Max winning the lottery? I find it somewhat interesting that Mary randomly chose Max to be her pen-pal from a New York phone book against the same sorts of astronomically dismal odds as the lottery randomly choosing Max's numbers for the win. It's almost as though he's won two lotteries. What's more, all of the money he wins also allows Max to achieve one of his biggest goals in life: having an unlimited supply of chocolate hot dogs, his own creation and his favorite food, consisting of a chocolate bar in a hot dog bun.

As you can imagine, this brings Max all the joy he can stand, at least for that period in the film. In fact, after he stocks his chocolate hot dogs, Max admits that he has no further use for his wealth (his misery sufficiently lessened), and gifts it to his mostly blind neighbor, who blows it frivolously in one of the sillier and more hilarious moments in the film.

At the risk of over-playing my point, here are some pictures taken directly from the film:

Here we see Mary, outwardly joyful, filling up a care package for Max. Though she has very little, Mary very clearly finds satisfaction in giving what little she does have to her friend, who derives his own joy from receiving such gifts (the red-orange pom pom on his yarmulke, for example, which adds brightness, color, and quirk to Max's world).

This is Mary on her wedding day marrying Damien, her neighbor since childhood and longtime object of desire. This is a notable success for Mary, and this combined with the boost of self confidence she gets from being a very successful college student, makes for perhaps the happiest and most stable period in her life. Granted, all of this falls apart when Max disapproves of her research work, her marriage fails, and Mary starts hitting the sherry the way her mother always had.

My point, again, is about balance. Yes, "Mary and Max" serves you up a heaping dose of misery, with scenes in Australia in somber sepia tones (though brown is Mary's favorite color, so it follows that she would find her surroundings quite un-miserable), and the scenes in New York in depressing, constantly rainy-looking black and white. However, the flashes of joy, love, humor, and indeed that bright red color that pervades the film in little splotches provide all the balance I could ask for.

For many people, life is about finding joy, love, color, friendship, etc in a world which at times can seem wholly unpleasant. Max's Asperger's caused him to feel miserably alienated from society, at least until he found his best and only friend in Mary, who could in turn finally get satisfying answers to some of life's big questions which the people around her couldn't answer.

Also, like I said last week, the choice of claymation is an important balance between the realistic characteristics of live action filming and the fantasy worlds of traditional and computer animation. Certainly, a live action version of "Mary and Max" would seem far more miserable because you're watching "real" people in a "real" settings in all of these miserable situations. But claymation allows you to identify with the tactile elements of the medium enough to make the characters identifiable and the drama poignant, yet not overly so.

The bottom line for me is that I can't think of "Mary and Max" as being "wholly unpleasant," as WHayes suggests, because it simply isn't. After all, there's no way in the world those tears at the very end of the film are anything other than tears of joy, however bittersweet they may be.

I'd prefer to label "Mary and Max" as "wholly bittersweet" and "wholly touching."

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