Heads of Clay

Going to the Oscars with a Socially Awkward Postal Correspondence Between New York and Australia?

Max in the Mirror: The yarmulke of atheist Max Horovitz (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman) keeps his brain warm, but his heart is kept warm by pen pal Mary Dinkle (voiced by Toni Collette).
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Max in the Mirror: The yarmulke of atheist Max Horovitz (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman) keeps his brain warm, but his heart is kept warm by pen pal Mary Dinkle (voiced by Toni Collette).

By Laurence Klavan

Published January 26, 2010.
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The February 2 announcement of the Academy Award nominations will include five nominees for Best Animated Film, instead of the usual three, a testament to the large number of worthy contenders this year (or maybe just the pressure applied by major studios to push their most lucrative product). It means there may be room for a dark horse: the Australian Claymation feature, “Mary and Max.”

The film’s qualifications are many: Its writer-director, Adam Elliot, won an Oscar for his short, “Harvie Krumpet”; it has star voices in the cast (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Toni Collette, Eric Bana); it opened last year’s Sundance Film Festival and has been featured in many festivals since (including the recent New York Jewish Film Festival). Even its blackly comic story — the pen-pal friendship between a young Australian girl and a middle-aged Jewish New York man — features the kind of religious and generational inclusiveness Hollywood prides itself on encouraging.

Yet “Mary and Max” (though screened for a week in Los Angeles to be eligible for the Academy Award) has not been released theatrically in the United States and is available only from cable channels on demand.

The qualities that have made it a tough sell commercially also may keep it out of the Oscar race. Yet these very aspects — its almost unbearable poignancy, virtual lack of sentimentality and tough old-fashioned view of urban Jewish misery — are what make it memorable, even indelible, and worth seeking out.

The film starts in 1972, in a comically crummy, small Australian town. Mary Dinkle is an unattractive, desperately lonely 12-year-old, plagued by an absurdly drunken shoplifting mother and an indifferent dad, who toils at a factory, putting strings on teabags.

While seeking friends in a New York City phone book, she writes to a Manhattan resident with an exotic name, looking to learn, among other things, whether babies in America come from the same place she’s been told they originate in Australia (the bottom of a beer glass).

The letter’s recipient, Max Horovitz, is a 44-year-old obese, mentally tormented loner who spends his time picking up litter and avoiding emotions that cause him anxiety. An atheist who still wears a yarmulke (“to keep his brain warm”), he’s haunted by memories of antisemitic persecution by childhood bullies and yearns for, if not a friend, at least a lottery win.

Stamp of Approval: Mary’s correspondence with Max starts with a need to check where babies come from.
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Stamp of Approval: Mary’s correspondence with Max starts with a need to check where babies come from.

During the next 16 years, the two will be linked in correspondence by their love of a TV cartoon show (“The Noblets”), anything chocolate and the anguish of other people’s complete rejection. Ultimately, given their unstable natures and unlucky lives, their deep, long-distance friendship will cause them as much pain as pleasure.

“Mary and Max” is done in trademark Claymation style — with faces made of fat little lumps for comic effect, drippy objects, child-like constructiveness — but it’s a long way from “Wallace and Gromit.” Mary’s rubbery lower lip often quivers on the edge of grief and Max’s big tombstone teeth chatter with uncontrollable discomfort.

While there are frequent, fast and funny cutaways to illustrate absurd events (an air conditioner falling on a mime’s head, a nun hatching an egg), there are also many images of illness, dismemberment and nearly unutterable solitude (Mary sends a container of her tears to Max as a gift; an empty bottle of Valium lurks in a cupboard behind a box of condensed milk; a cat loses an eye, a man his legs). The whimsy only underscores the bleakness behind it.

Elliot says the film is “based on a true story” of his own childhood pen-pal relationship, and his identification with Mary’s loveless life is total. Yet even more affecting is his empathy with Max, a fully rendered, recognizable Jew of another era. He’s the kind of large, smart, unbalanced man (in the film he’s eventually diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome) who used to sit at chess tables in the park or start conversations or fights with strangers in the streets and delis of the Upper West Side, a far cry from the assimilated, fitting-in Seinfelds of today’s ethnically generic city.

Interestingly, Mary makes no mention of Max’s religion, though she initially jots down his phone number on her upper arm, in a startling — maybe unconscious — Holocaust reference. Even more interestingly, the compassionate film comes from Icon, Mel Gibson’s company — penance for his sins?

Philip Seymour Hoffman perfectly captures the dry, deadpan world-weariness that masks Max’s keen and fatalistic humor. In fact, Elliot’s entire portrait of New York in the ‘70s and ‘80s — filled with trash, whores and an actual middle class — is impeccable, a place all in dreary black and white except for the occasional red to mark a siren, a lit cigarette, or the pompon Mary sends Max to cap off his kippah.

There are some missteps: too much omniscient narration (by an avuncular Barry Humphries, of “Dame Edna” fame), a few too many obvious jokes and over-familiar music cues (“Typewriter,” “Que Sera Sera”) that detract from Dale Cornelius‘ comic and haunting score. But overall Elliot eloquently animates a world in which the main characters’ daily routines and rituals — pets, food and TV — cannot ease the fact of their isolation, where Americans and Australians, Jews and gentiles, are linked not just by a common language but by a crushing loneliness.

In this way, weirdly, “Mary and Max” has similarities with the inevitable Oscar nominee (and probable winner), Disney’s “Up.” Both portray an unhappy older person’s unlikely friendship with a child. Yet while “Up” has an admittedly moving first montage about the life and death of a long marriage, it soon veers into silliness, sentimentality and a plot stuffed with ersatz “imagination.” By contrast, in Elliot’s film, love is too hard to handle, doesn’t last, comes too late or, even if expressed and reciprocated, can save no one from anything. (A certain friend refers to it as “Down.”)

It’s probably too good to be included on the Academy list. Oscars declare who the winners are; “Mary and Max” is firmly set in the land of the lost.

Laurence Klavan is a playwright and novelist living in New York City.


Watch the trailer for “Mary and Max” below:






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