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Originally published Thursday, December 12, 2013 at 3:06 PM

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‘Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?’: for fans of Noam Chomsky

A 1.5-star review of “Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?,” an animated documentary directed by Michel Gondry from a series of conversations he had with linguist and political curmudgeon Noam Chomsky.


The Washington Post

Movie Review 1.5 stars

‘Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?,’ a documentary directed by Michel Gondry. Not rated; for general audiences (contains nothing objectionable). 88 minutes. Sundance Cinemas.

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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?

OK, relocate the setting from a Manhattan restaurant to an office at MIT, and replace Gregory with 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 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 an antique camera — the film is probably of interest only to those viewers who, like Gondry 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 1½-year-old version of himself 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 about things that nobody except a groupie would care about.

So Chomsky experienced anti-Semitism growing up. It’s regrettable, but so what? That anecdote is presented as neither formative nor illuminating.

The truest words in the film are spoken by Gondry, when he says, “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.



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