Michel Gondry is one of the last true analog illusionists. Whether he’s conjuring Lego versions of The White Stripes, multiple Kylie Minogues, or the crumbling memory-scape of Jim Carrey, the director’s genius rests in elaborate montage, trick shots, and a healthy sense of the absurd. When Gondry turns to realism, however, the results can be exasperatingly dry. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party got by on the energy of its emcee, but Gondry’s portrait of his aunt, The Thorn In The Heart, is the kind of listless affair that defines “family only,” while The We And The I (released earlier this year) suggests the filmmaker’s gifts as a director do not extend to orchestrated improv.
So it’s a small relief that the interview-doc Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?—subtitled “an animated conversation with Noam Chomsky”—smuggles in a fair share of the fantastic, smartly illustrating the MIT professor’s ideas with rapid-fire hand-drawn cartoons, mixed-media collage, and occasional Bolex footage of the man himself. There’s an almost trippy sensation as Chomsky’s deliberate cadence is overlaid with imagery that shows, say, the degree to which humans identify a tree by its placement rather than its genetic makeup. The contrast in tempos produces the feeling of arriving to class overcaffeinated—or alternatively, watching the graduate-seminar equivalent of Schoolhouse Rock.
Content-wise, the movie is a solid primer not only on such staples as Chomksy’s theories of generative grammar, but also on the academic’s background and way of thinking. No assumptions go unquestioned. (Anyone who argues for “irreducible complexity,” Chomsky notes in an oblique jab at the intelligent-design camp, hasn’t properly understood the problem under consideration.) The topics vary in interest, but there are fascinating interludes on the way children comprehend more than is generally recognized; the Ship Of Theseus paradox and the notion that perception doesn’t rely on physical characteristics (a dog transformed into a camel in a fairy tale is still, in readers’ minds, a dog); and the origin of language, which Chomsky explains occurred over a remarkably brief blip on the evolutionary timeline. Perhaps most notable is that the film limits its subject’s activism to an afterthought—a striking emphasis given the linguist’s ubiquity as a talking head in politi-docs (The Corporation, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold). Basically, Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy? amounts to two men having a mellow discussion about the nature of ideas; it’s formally limited, yet wide-ranging in its material and ambitions. Call it a case of cognitive dissonance.