"If you're willing to be puzzled, you learn", says linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky at one point in Michel Gondry's admiring, unconventional documentary. It's an appropriate phrase to summarize Is the Man who is Tall Happy?, as this latest proof of the French director's endless curiosity and willingness to stretch is a very puzzling entry in a filmography that has been unconventional itself.
For what he terms, with perfectly apposite tongue-in-cheekness, "an animated conversation with Noam Chomsky", Mr. Gondry illustrates excerpts from a number of interview sessions he made with the linguist - but he does so not with traditional "talking-head" or archival footage, other than the occasional "insert" shot using an old-fashioned, hand-cranked super-8 camera. Instead, the director uses painstakingly hand-drawn animations, of the type he has often used in his stubbornly analogue trick work both in music videos and feature films.
It's that handcrafted ingenuity of his special effects that made his reputation as a visual magician over the past 20 years, but to make it work over a feature length it requires a strong plot or through-line - something Mr. Gondry has not always had. Especially ever since the masterful Charlie Kaufman-written Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, there has been a sense that the more he relies on that trickery the less successful the films are - case in point being the "diptych" formed by his latest two fiction features: the almost effects-free New York ensemble piece The We and the I, probably his best film since Eternal Sunshine, and the oneiric, undercooked French whimsy of L'Écume des jours, its plot and outlandish visuals seeming at odds with one another
Is the Man who is Tall Happy? , a project that was into production for a good three years, belongs to the parallel track of Mr. Gondry's more personal projects that also includes the acclaimed documentaries Dave Chappelle's Block Party and The Thorn in the Heart, with its start-to-end animation approach attempting a visual translation of Mr. Chomsky's thought process. But the surreal, free-association visuals, and its haphazard, deliberately amateurish quality, turn out to throw the project out of balance and set it off in counter-intuitive parallel paths. Instead of supporting and illustrating the thinker's ideas, they become a distraction, clutching at straws that disappear in the process of being made visible; it's as if Mr. Gondry is chasing a rainbow to try and crystallize it in pictures, but loses its elusive magic in the process.
Though technically impressive for its patient, hobbyist tone, and fascinating as a glimpse into the minds of both its subject and its maker, Is the Man who is Tall Happy? is an oddly lifeless film, an idea whose realization does not match its premise.
IS THE MAN WHO IS TALL HAPPY? AN ANIMATED CONVERSATION WITH NOAM CHOMSKY
Director and screenwriter Michel Gondry; animations Mr. Gondry, Valérie Pirson and Timothée Lemoine; composer Howard Skempton; editors Adam M. Weber and Sophie Reine; producers Georges Bermann, Mr. Gondry, Raffi Adlan and Julie Fong; production company Partizan Films
Screened December 2nd 2014, Lisbon (distributor DVD screener)