Director Michel Gondry is one of the weird ones, a guy who somewhat puzzlingly seems to have broken free from the overwhelming stigma of his DIY freak-out aesthetics by using personal stories that paradoxically incorporate the very DIY ideas that got people complaining about him in the first place. Following the success of his breakout film, 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, people figured they could pin down the projects that Gondry would do next. To an extent his follow up feature, The Science of Sleep, did just that, but his 2005 documentary Dave Chappelle’s Block Party began a string of seemingly-left-turn decisions for the Frenchman that were built on his strengths and acutely personal investment in the material. He liked hip-hop and Dave Chappelle, so why not make a documentary about them? He loves his aunt Suzette, so he made a documentary in 2009 about her called The Thorn in the Heart. His feature work notwithstanding—though recently they are just as scattered—his jaunts into documentary filmmaking reveal an exploratory and endlessly curious mind that forces itself out onscreen. His new documentary, Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?, is perhaps his most random but most expressive film yet.
You have to be a bit of an intellectual to even engage with the film, which limits its broad appeal but strengthens it if you are in the club who appreciates both Gondry and the film’s subject, the world renowned linguist, philosopher, and political activist Noam Chomsky. Made from a pair of sitdown interviews with Chomsky that Gondry recorded at the astoundingly sharp-witted professor’s offices in and around MIT, the film eschews a formal talking-head documentary style and instead incorporates Gondry’s animation to galvanize the anecdotes and concepts that come from their conversations. Gondry initially intercedes into the film, explaining that his Gilliam-esque animation is a sort of kitschy accompaniment to their discussions meant to represent the fiction of what they are talking about. It’s a way to simply reject normal documentary manipulation. Instead of seeing Chomsky himself theorizing onscreen throughout the film’s runtime, the animation allows viewers the intellectually unimposing room to think about everything for themselves.
The conversations themselves range from the greatest hits of Chomsky’s philosophy—like the Generative Grammar concepts that lends the film its name—to biographical sketches of Chomsky himself—such as his early progressive schooling growing up outside Philadelphia or how he’s coping with the loss of his beloved wife Carol—to Gondry bouncing his own philosophical quandaries off of Chomsky—such as why friends who you haven’t seen for a very long time literally seem like different people when you meet back up with them. It’s strange and weird and quite erudite, but it will never lose audience members who give themselves over to its mesmerizing animation juxtaposed with Chomsky’s conceptual sophistication. It makes itself out to be quite possibly one of the most fun philosophy classes you could ever take.
Aside from the cheekily funny meta-moments when Gondry inserts his own self-conscious feelings about how he misinterprets some of Chomsky’s comments, the real takeaway from the film is just how similar the two disparate men are. Chomsky is the seemingly stuffy academic whose life remains squarely within an intellectual milieu and Gondry is the scruffy cinema savant who strives for a unique style, yet the two men are hopelessly inquisitive about their worlds. They’ve basically come across the same question to always challenge what is obvious, and have fundamentally based their lives around this one simple notion.
Gondry has come up with something that has challenged what we assumed he would do. Sometimes such randomness leads to things becoming arbitrary, but wherever Gondry chooses to go nevertheless seems to be necessary to his own personal explorations. Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? furthers Gondry’s journey, and brings with it one of the foremost minds of the last century. It may require you to think, but it’s well worth it.