Lowdown: Two very different people share their loneliness as pen pals across continents.
Mary (Toni Collette, mostly) is an eight year old living in 1976 suburban Melbourne and having a hard time finding friends, a lot of it the result of her shame for the birthmark on her forehead. Her parents aren’t that great, either. So she picks up a foreign phone book at her post office, chooses a random name, and fires off a letter.
Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is an obese loner from Manhattan New York. This Jew turned atheist is a loner, too, probably the result of the mental illness inflicting him. Mary’s letter therefore hits his soft spot, and despite the anxiety attack it triggers he answers it. Henceforth starts a friendship in letters between the two, a cure for its subjects’ loneliness that crosses age differences, physical distance and plenty of obstacles as it goes through rough times over many years.
The above plot seems like nothing we haven’t seen before from Hollywood but that is not the case with Mary and Max. The product of Adam Elliot, the Melbourne based Oscar winner from the short film Harvie Krumpet, Mary and Max uses Elliot’s signature style of stop motion animation to discuss miserable characters in a way that highlights society’s illnesses while making us smile or occasionally laugh.
The result is a mixed bag. On one hand, there can be no denying the talent at hand, from both Elliot and the slew of voice actors (on top of the above mentioned we have the likes of a very busy Barry Humphries doing narration work and an Eric Bana as a sort of a love subject). There is also the matter of the lovely stop motion animation – imagine the effort there – and the observable nature of the film, like its use of generally gray looking everything with the occasional splotch of color.
Yet when all is said and done there can be no ignoring the fact that despite Mary and Max’ short duration it is a rather boring affair. The distance between good laughs is just too far, and even the touching ending is not enough of a redeemer.
The better scenes in Mary and Max are the ones that tell us more about our characters by straying, often severely, from the main plot and delving into minor sub stories. These sub stories are usually of extremely absurd natures, done in a manner not unlike that of the Family Guy cartoon series. Unlike Family Guy they are usually not that funny even if they are original and inventive.
Of these scenes I liked a rather milder one where Max explains how he became an atheist despite being raised a Jew: we see the pile of books he read to open his mind with. Starring in this pile is a book by Asimov, who is not only one of my favorite authors but is also one of the people responsible for me opening my own mind up to new ideas despite being raised a Jew.
Overall: I want to rate this film highly but the fact it is rather boring prevents me from doing so. I’ll therefore stretch my generosity as far as I can to give Mary and Max 3 out of 5 stars, but stress that my generosity is due to my appreciation of the style, the effort and the locality of the subject at hand rather than my liking of its contents.