Australian movies are full of camp: the vulgar shriek of real life. The cast of most Australian movies wouldn’t get work playing gargoyles in America…and yet, in the movies of P.J. Hogan, Baz Luhrmann, et al, aesthetic ruin is celebrated, even beloved. The comb-over, that three-legged dog of a hair-style, is to Australian movies what a baseball cap is to America; it tells the viewer: here’s life, beat up…and yet, weirdly, resplendent. In Australian movies, men and women are festooned with flagrant collapse. They dress like they are trying to confuse satellites. They advertise imperfection. As the latest in this long and bumpy line, the new movie Mary and Max proves that even Australian animation is besotted with grotesques.
Mary Dinkle is an eight-year-old girl living in Australia. She is not the prettiest girl, but she has a good heart. Her mother is a drinker. Her father works at a factory where he attaches the string to tea-bags (naturally, he has a comb-over). Much of life confuses Mary; not least, the matter of where babies come from. Her grandfather once told her that babies are found at the bottom of beer glasses. One day, she decides to send a letter to a stranger to ask if this is true. The letter is received by Max Horowitz, a forty-one-year-old, morbidly obese Asperger’s sufferer…who lives in New York. Max finds life confusing, too, but he feels a kinship with Mary. These two lost souls begin a correspondence that lasts for twenty years.
Loneliness, suicide, alcoholism, and despair…aren’t usually found in Claymation. Wallace and Gromit spend more time thinking about cheese than the merits of hanging themselves. But don’t let these themes put you off. Mary and Max is not one those movies that everyone says is “funny”, but which actually makes you want to kill yourself: it’s a comedy. True, the comedy comes out of loneliness, suicide, alcoholism and despair, but, as the movie says: “we don’t get to choose our warts”…only how we live with them. Jokes are like candles; they don’t remove the dark, they help you find your way to brighter lights. The comedy in Mary and Max is a hair’s breadth from sadness, but it’s funnier for nudging grief.
As I watched the movie, I kept thinking of the pastor’s speech from Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (see below). Like that speech, there’s a weird euphoria in Mary and Max. It’s the unfettered joy of saying the truth…especially when that truth is sad, especially when the truth is: you’re lonely. So much of life is about “pretending [you’re] OK”… But (as in the best, most shameless comedy) blurting out the unsayable makes you stronger for breaking taboo. The device of sharing letters is perfect for this aim, as letters offer an uninterrupted voice. When Mary and Max make their confessions, there are no interlocutors; no-one to wince when they speak too personally, no-one to hiss at them to shut up. They’re free to be human…the way we’re all human, when we’re beset by our flaws.
Philip Seymour Hoffman gives Max a voice like a manhole cover; he sounds like the world runs over him a thousand times a day. He’s the sort of man who surrenders to life…knowing life will take his white flag, and strike him with it. The animated Max looks like a Jewish Shrek, pickpocketed of Shrek’s Scottish hardiness and instead, stuffed with doubt, neurosis and an imminent sense of doom. As the voice of the adult Mary, Toni Collette sounds, as always, like someone you’d want around when the worst happens. She has a practical voice, just world-weary enough. There was good reason she played Muriel in Muriel’s Wedding. Collette can play a survivor without any of the stridency, or the Mary Sunshine-bullshit, that makes survivors seem false. She doesn’t prod at you with her stoicism.
When America made this movie, they called it Up…and it was beautiful. Like Up, Mary and Max is about a lonely misanthrope who is rescued by an unwitting saviour, but because Mary and Max was made in Australia; that lonely misanthrope looks like a troll. There isn’t a single character in Mary and Max who’d pass the drawing stage at Pixar studios. They’re all a bit too real. Even Mary’s elderly neighbour has had his legs bitten off below the knees. And that’s Australia…that’s bloody marvellous. That’s a very British sense of how life should look – “warts and all” – but with no cringing. Life’s vulgarity is accepted: all inclusive (including male comb-overs). Beauty, in Australian movies, is about abandon. There’s no room for prudes.