There’s just no other way to describe “Mary and Max,” the eccentric clay-animation tour de force by Australian director Adam Elliot, than as “black humor.” What else can you a call a film where the best jokes involve a plummeting air conditioner and the head of a street mime, or a goldfish and an electric toaster?
And yet Elliot has great compassion for his misfit characters, an unlikely pair of pen-friends who find solace in each other’s words. There’s a mix of innocence and bleakness in “Mary and Max” that recalls the style of U.S. indie iconoclast Todd Solondz (“Happiness,” “Welcome to the Dollhouse”), especially in the way it can mercilessly skewer its characters while still feeling affection for them.
Mary Daisy Dinkle (voiced by Toni Collette) is a shy 8-year-old in Australia with the kind of looks that scream “bully me!” Between her alcoholic, shoplifting mom and her reclusive dad, whose hobby is taxidermy, Mary feels rather abandoned; her wish for a friend, just someone to talk to, is realized when she randomly sends a letter (and a chocolate bar) to a name she pulls out of a Manhattan phone book.
Enter Max Jerry Horowitz (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a 44-year-old schlub who lives in New York City and looks like a gone-to-seed Shrek as imagined by Edvard Munch. He’s got an eating disorder and a bad case of Asperger’s syndrome, and his only friend is an imaginary one, Mr. Ravioli. His childhood traumas have left him a world-wary recluse, but Mary’s letter strikes a chord. He replies, and a friendship is born.
Max tells Mary about his therapy (“Dr. Hazelhoff tells me you should never weigh more than your refrigerator”), his pets and his history of failed employment, while answering her questions about where babies come from, how to deal with bullies and why it doesn’t matter if you don’t smile. Mary advises him on how to lose weight: “Maybe you could only eat things beginning with the letter of each day. On Monday, you could only eat milkshakes, marshmallows and mustard.” When Mary asks Max to explain love, though, he has a panic attack, and spends time in a mental institution. Their correspondence will continue through various ups and downs for the next two decades.
“Mary and Max” will surely join the ranks of the classics of misfit cinema, right up there with “Harold and Maude,” “Ed Wood” and “Ghost World.” It’s perfectly in tune with how strange and puzzling the normal world looks for those who can’t seem to find the groove, and cannily contrasts childhood naivete with the “confuzzled” worldview of the mentally ill, seeing things without the social conditioning needed to process them. What makes the film interesting is that Elliot has based this story on real experience: He himself has been writing to a pen-friend in NYC for over 20 years, and sure enough, that friend has Asperger’s. One of the director’s goals, amid the absurdist humor, was to demystify this milder form of autism.
Elliot heavily stylizes the look of the film, all German expressionist black and white for Max’s Manhattan, and barnyard brown for Mary’s Melbourne; the only color allowed is red, which cuts through with striking clarity when used, whether it’s Mary’s mom with her lipstick-smeared Mrs. Potato Head mouth or the little red pom-pom on Max’s yarmulke. Music by the Penguin Cafe Orchestra similarly defines the film’s tone, giving it a jaunty yet melancholic feel, whether the topic is chocolate hot dogs or a bottle filled with tears.
Best of all is the narration by Barry Humphries: It’s got that warm, plummy, bedtime-story tone common to so much children’s animation; you expect him to be saying something like, “So Christopher Robin took Pooh to a very muddy place,” but it’s usually more like, “Max had always wanted a friend, a friend that wasn’t invisible, a pet, or rubber figurine.”
“Mary and Max” is that rarest of rarities: a fable for adults, letting us know that no matter how much the world disappoints, sometimes just one good and honest friend can make all the difference.