The title card for Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? slowly fades out the words until only the Happy? remains. It’s something to keep in mind throughout this audacious and visually-stimulating animated interview with renowned linguist Noam Chomsky. The whimsical details of Michel Gondry’s previous efforts, such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep, are left to be seen in full display in this new picture - a painstakingly detailed effort that he animated on his own while working on The Green Hornet and presumably The We and the I. Gondry outlines his intentions bluntly from the start: he’s looking to interview Chomsky simply because he has the means to do so and because, at 85, Chomsky’s death becomes increasingly inevitable.
Chomsky welcomes Gondry’s eccentricities, denoting that God gives you 70 years on the house - anything else is extra So even as the two discuss concepts of dogmatism and generative grammar, their friendly repartee keeps the densest conversations relatively light. Gondry quickly admits his own failings in keeping up with Chomsky, with his unrefined English circumventing his intentions. Gondry’s a willing student and has the attentive curiosity of a schoolboy, but he often confesses his inability to grasp the heavy theoretics that Chomsky’s offering. Dumbing it down a shade, Chomsky obliges Gondry the best he can, even as Gondry (or for that matter, the audience) proves incapable of deciphering the professor’s concepts.
Through Gondry’s animation, the material and overarching structure of documentary filmmaking is given a lively injection of visual splendor. More conventionally, I could imagine this being an Errol Morris talking head picture that simply sees Chomsky conversing on his theories. Some may call it a novelty, but Gondry’s artistic direction gives the whole film an undeniable cinematic flair. This is a film about two men sitting in front of a window talking about life, death and academia that runs for about an hour and a half. While hearing the two men converse is a delight, it’s Gondry’s visual direction that provides an unprecedented sense of forward momentum. There are some masterful uses of this technique as well, particularly as Gondry, ever the purveyor of the human mind and the capacity for memory, inquires about how Chomsky is coping with the death of his wife. Chomsky is a private person and explains that he can’t really talk about it, perhaps mistakenly letting out that he just can’t get over her death. Gondry’s visual interpretation of this small portion of the film sees a 2D animation of Chomsky going to bed. Uncovering the sheets, there’s a hole on the opposite side of the bed - it’s a vortex that transports him back to his wife as the two ride bikes in this alternate universe. It’s a scene that sneaks up on you in the midst of talk of academia, but it’s one of the most profoundly touching animated sequences I have ever seen. Chomsky will forever be a man of words but Gondry may very well be his visual match.