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Published: Friday, December 13, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Conversations with Chomsky, with cartoons

  • Noam Chomsky is well-known for his critiques of U.S. foreign policy, capitalism and the mainstream news media.

    Associated Press

    Noam Chomsky is well-known for his critiques of U.S. foreign policy, capitalism and the mainstream news media.

Which honor is more likely to make you the star of a movie: being voted People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive," or Foreign Policy magazine's "Leading Global Intellectual"?
For perhaps the only time in history, the film "Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?" opts for the latter, choosing 2005 top vote-getter Noam Chomsky as its subject.
A lot of this probably had to do with the perpetually whimsical filmmaker involved. Michel Gondry is a designer, animator, inventor and all-purpose enthusiast; he seems to be curious about just about anything that exists in the world.
His resumé easily accommodates the melancholy of "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," the zaniness of "Be Kind Rewind" and the countless visually ingenious music videos he's concocted over the years.
"Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?" consists of conversation between Chomsky and the heavily-French-accented Gondry, almost entirely animated in Gondry's line drawings and collages.
Chomsky is known for his theories on linguistics and his political activism, and Gondry engages all that, adding his crayoned doodads and oddly haunting cut-out pictures to illustrate some of Chomsky's basic ideas.
He also asks Chomsky about his childhood and his personal life -- the question "What makes you happy?" seems to throw Chomsky for a while, until he lands upon examples of political heroism amongst oppressed people as a source of satisfaction.
Chomsky suggests that his belief in questioning everything was likely sourced in childhood: "It probably started with not wanting to eat my oatmeal: 'Why?', you know?"
A skeptic might note that for someone who espouses the importance of doubting and questioning, Chomsky's own responses to Gondry's questions tend to be sweeping and definitive, cutting off their interlocutor when he offers some resistance.
And that's too bad, because one of the intriguing things about the movie is Gondry's presence, a warm, inquisitive personality that seems to bring out some intriguing admissions from Chomsky. The movie could use more of that.
Just looking at this visually clever film becomes a key part of its appeal, as Gondry's busy imagination runs a race with Chomsky's brainiac talk.
You end up not really knowing enough about either man for the film to be counted a success, but its existence leaves open one amusing possibility: Could this thing actually compete with "Despicable Me 2" and "Frozen" in the Oscars' best animated film category?
"Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?" (2½ stars)
A whimsical documentary interview with linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky, whose conversation with director Michel Gondry is illustrated by Gondry's playful line drawings and collages. Certainly an odd approach to the subject, but it's fun to look at and Gondry's charming personality tempers Chomsky's professorial delivery.
Rated: Not rated; probably PG for subject matter.
Showing: Sundance.
Story tags » Movies

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