Mary and Max

Mary and Max

I was looking forward to this one. It’s an animated feature by the same Australian (Adam Elliot) who did the short Harvie Krumpet, which I liked quite a lot.

It is indeed very much the same feel. It’s quirky and funny, poignant and sad. Harvie Krumpet is about a lonely misfit; Mary and Max is about two lonely misfits.

Mary is, at the start of the film, 8 years old. She lives in Australia. She is unattractive, unpopular, and has the kind of grotesque parents (mother especially) that would make any child cringe with shame and embarrassment. She is sweet-natured and doesn’t understand why loneliness and unhappiness should be her lot.

One day she decides to pick a random person from a phone book from far away and write a letter to him, almost like putting a message in a bottle and casting it out to sea.

Max is a middle-aged Jewish New Yorker with Asperger’s syndrome. His is a mostly empty life of routine. About the only human contact he has is with his psychiatrist, with his elderly nearly blind neighbor, and with his Overeaters Anonymous group. He prides himself on being logical and honest, and doesn’t understand why loneliness and unhappiness should be his lot.

One day Max receives a letter from a total stranger, a little girl from Australia. This is a source of considerable stress for him, since it involves two things he’s developed considerable trepidation about—human interaction and something outside of his routine. But he is also intrigued, and so despite considerable misgivings, he writes back to her.

Therein begins a pen pal relationship that spans many years, where each one tells about the mundane (but in their way always revealing) facts of their lives and surroundings, and opens up about their feelings. Always there is the vague hope that they will meet in person one day.

I’m impressed how often Mary and Max hits just the right note emotionally. The humor is sharp and frequent enough that I laughed out loud more at this movie than at the vast majority of movies that are pure comedies. But the most valuable thing the humor does is take the edge off the serious elements.

I don’t mean that in the sense of watering down the more serious bits, or distracting from them. What it does is it lets you laugh while simultaneously feeling everything you should be feeling in response to the serious elements.

In fact, it enables the movie to hit those serious points harder, to risk being as sappy and maudlin as the most overdone tearjerker. You can’t roll your eyes at or be annoyed by its shameless tugging at your emotions, because you’re too busy laughing at the same time.

When you get right down to it, there is a lot of unhappiness in this movie. There is fear, confusion, disappointment. There are damaged people struggling to deal with phobias, burdens and impediments (largely socially imposed, by the way, which is even more infuriating), with more failure than success. And all that hits every bit as deep as it should. Yet you come away from so many scenes—and the film as a whole—smiling because of the oddball humor in the storytelling.

In a flashback to his childhood, Max remembers that because his Asperger’s makes it hard for him to decipher facial expressions, he carried with him a little book of faces labeled “Happy,” “Angry,” “Sad,” etc. In one incident, with his mother glaring at him, he quickly consults his book to help ascertain what her expression means. He finds the right page and looks up, but before he can congratulate himself on solving the riddle he gets a sharp slap.

It’s a scene of only a few seconds, with funny looking characters, a quirky disability and quirkier coping device, and slapstick humor, yet it’s also a scene of a frustrated mother striking her child who’s doing the best he can. It feels like a funny cartoon and it feels very real and sad at the same time.

The movie is filled with moments like that.

Strong ending too. Movingly shows just how powerful an impact these characters had on each other’s lives.

What the movie made me think about as much as anything is how little correlation there is between how much you deserve friendship and human connection, and how much you actually get them. If anything, there’s a slight reverse correlation. Our vices not infrequently turn out to be advantages in “winning friends and influencing people,” while our virtues are often disadvantages to be overcome.

That’s of course the sadness at the heart of this movie, that people can live so much of their lives in a lonely, loveless state even when they’re not by any measure bad people.

You can make a case that the film’s a bit long, that maybe there’s not quite enough material to warrant an hour and a half movie, maybe even that this kind of poignant oddball humor works better in Harvie Krumpet-size doses.

But that’s quibbling. Mary and Max is a sweet, moving, very funny, terrific little film.

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