Imagine that you’re at a dinner party. Imagine you start conversing with the man sitting next to you and within minutes realize that he’s far smarter than you’ll ever be — pleasant enough, but talking with him is like falling off the back of a truck and watching it speed into the distance. What do you do? If you’re Michel Gondry, you sprint like crazy to keep up while doodling on the tablecloth.
“Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?” consists of that conversation — with Noam Chomsky, the legendary linguist, political progressive, and public intellectual — and also the doodles. Literally: Gondry, the whimsical writer-director of such films as “Be Kind Rewind,” “The Science of Sleep,” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (the last written by Charlie Kaufman), filmed his encounter with Chomsky on a noisy old Bolex camera and then used the footage as sonic background for his own bright, antic line drawings, made with multicolored Sharpie pens. The film’s subtitle is “An Animated Conversation With Noam Chomsky” but it plays like “My Dinner With Andre” crossed with a laser show.
Gondry’s role in this tete-a-tete is to play the earnest Frenchman, tripping over his own pronunciation while peppering the then 82-year-old Chomsky with Big Questions. Where does inspiration come from? Is there a biological reason each generation thinks the one following it is going to hell in a handbasket? Chomsky — who by his own admission doesn’t go to the movies anymore and seems unaware of who Gondry is — talks about whatever he feels like talking about. Mostly he wants us to think hard about things we take for granted, or, in his words, “be puzzled about what should be obvious.” Where does language come from? How do infants separate the components of language from all their other sensory impressions? Why do we think a word — “dog,” say — has anything to do with that which is a dog? What makes the Charles River the Charles River? “As you can see, I felt a bit stupid here,” Gondry admits at one point.
The Charles River comment comes from Chomsky’s gazing out the window where the two are speaking (Chomsky teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), but otherwise “Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?” feels unmoored in time and space. The animated visuals pinwheel through gaudy abstractions and cartoonish reductions of the ideas being discussed, and some of these are extremely beautiful. The drawings don’t accompany Chomsky’s comments so much as try to stay on pace with them, and Gondry’s questions skitter over the surface while rarely following his subject down the rabbit hole of logic.
We learn quite a bit about Chomsky’s early years in Philadelphia and how studying Hebrew with his father set him on a path toward parsing language down to its rudiments. We learn that his atheism doesn’t dissuade him from understanding how religious beliefs weld people into communities. We don’t learn much about Chomsky’s relationship with his wife and colleague, Carol Schatz, whose death in 2008 is still an open wound.
And we hear little about Chomsky’s political leanings, a major omission for a man whose writings have made him a hugely influential figure for subsequent generations of progressive dissent. There are his many books and a raft of documentaries like 1992’s “Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media” for that, but it still feels as if Gondry is giving us only half the man. While the filmmaker keeps our eyes dazzled and our brains fizzing, he gets to the how of his subject’s thinking without penetrating to the why. The closest “Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?” comes is when Chomsky recalls his first memory, as a 16-month-old toddler fighting off the oatmeal an aunt was trying to feed him. “I was not going to eat that oatmeal,” he says, and he never has. Nor should we, he implies, even if it’s not clear whether Gondry is paying attention.