Does anyone remember “My Dinner With Andre,” Louis Malle’s 1981 film capturing a brainy, wide-ranging conversation between playwright/actor Wallace Shawn and theater director Andre Gregory?
Okay, relocate the setting from a Manhattan restaurant to an office at MIT, and replace the urbane aesthete Gregory with cranky linguist and political curmudgeon Noam Chomsky. Next, imagine Shawn as a Frenchman with an accent so thick that it can be understood only with subtitles, written on the screen in his own scratchy, cursive handwriting. Finally, pretend that the whole thing, instead of being filmed on camera, is an audio recording animated with drawings that alternate between childlike doodles and acid-induced hallucinations.
You’ll have a pretty good idea of what watching “Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?” is like. Directed by Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) from a series of conversations that Gondry audio-recorded — and only partly filmed, on a noisy, antique, wind-up camera — the film is probably of interest only to those viewers who, like Gondry himself apparently, already have an obsession with Chomsky.
I’m not saying the man isn’t wicked smart or interesting, but I could live a happy life without knowing that Chomsky’s earliest childhood memory involves a 1 1 / 2-year-old version of himself sitting on a kitchen counter, refusing to eat his oatmeal. Although that tidbit is a prelude of sorts to a deeper discussion that lurches from language acquisition to the nature of consciousness to the history of science to epistemology to religion to Chomsky’s fearlessness about dying, too much of the film involves Gondry inquiring, like a breathless fanboy, about things that nobody except a groupie would care about.
So Chomsky experienced anti-Semitism in Philadelphia growing up. It’s regrettable, but so what? That anecdote is presented as neither formative nor illuminating.
Gondry’s whimsical animations aren’t bad, and they sometimes help to clarify a few of the more abstract ideas that Chomsky brings up, seemingly haphazardly at times. The truest words in the film are spoken by Gondry, when he says, apropos of yet another one of his subject’s conversational digressions, “Noam took the conversation to a different place.”
Whether that’s a place that you’ll want to go is not for me to say. Know only this: The title of the film refers not to the nature of happiness, but to the nature of our linguistic hard-wiring. How is it, Chomsky wonders, that a child learns that the interrogative form of the statement “The man who is tall is happy” is “Is the man who is tall happy?” and not “Is the man who tall is happy?
Our understanding that it’s the second “is” — and not the first one — that you move to the beginning of the sentence to turn it into a question illustrates our instinctual grasp of the difference between what Chomsky calls structural proximity and linear proximity.
Food for thought? Maybe so, Noam, but I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.
Unrated. At West End Cinema. Contains nothing objectionable. 88 minutes.