Urban Cinefile
"I have a chronically arched eyebrow about the world, including myself. "  -- Writer/director Neil LaBute on his film, In the Company of Men
 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Tuesday July 28, 2020 

Printable page PRINTABLE PAGE



An unlikely pen-friendship develops between Mary Dinkle (voices of Bethany Whitmore and Toni Collette), a chubby, lonely, eight year old girl living in the suburbs of Melbourne, and Max Horovitz (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a 44 year old, severely obese, Jewish man with Asperger's Syndrome, living in the chaos of New York. Their correspondence reveals their fears, foibles and obsessions, including chocolate and a TV show. When Mary uses her newfound knowledge about Aspies for a book on the subject, Max feels used and abandons the friendship, leaving Mary despondent. She goes on with her life, sadly, with obstacles that include her parents and the young man next door, Damien (Eric Bana) who seems an ideal Mr Right ....

Review by Louise Keller:
Whimsical with dark overtones is the mood of Adam Elliot's first feature, whose curious friendship between unlikely pen-pals is the focus of a humorous and edgy narrative. The characterisations are wonderful and often inspired, yet the structure and development of the relationships feel forced as themes of mental illness, anxiety, obesity, agoraphobia and autism are thrown higgledy piggledy into a chaotic fishbowl rivalling that of the many goldfish (all called Henry), who inevitably meet a tragic end. Elliot has created his rough claymation characters with as much affection as he has bestowed them with flaws.
Whether or not the film holds for its 92 minutes is a question in point. As is the issue of Barry Humphrey's narration, albeit excellent, that keeps us at arm's length from the emotional essence of Mary and Max who discover the importance of friendship.

There is no doubt, however, that Elliot has created highly detailed and intricate worlds for his two star characters. Mary (voiced by Bethany Whitmore) is a friendless, bespectacled nerdy eight year old girl living in the Australian suburbs with muddy eyes that match her mood ring and the 'poo coloured' ungainly birthmark in the middle of her forehead. Max (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman) is an obese, atheist-Jewish New Yorker addicted to chocolate hot-dogs and anxiety attacks. He is also friendless and anti-social, but responds positively when he receives Mary's letter of friendship that arrives unexpectedly one day accompanied by a bar of Cherry Ripe. Elliot portrays their individual worlds in different visual terms. Mary's world is shown in sepia with splashes of red, while Max lives in a sombre world of black, white and grey.

The first half of the film is by far the best, when we are introduced to all the wacky characters and the long-distance relationship between Mary and Max is established. I love Mary's sherry-swilling mother Vera (voiced by the fabulous Renée Geyer), who looks a tad like Humphrey's greatest creation Dame Edna, with her streamlined spectacles, pronounced beauty spot, pill-box red lips and black hair tightly wound up in rollers. Damien (voiced by Eric Bana) is the Greek boy next door, who is the object of Mary's affection, but the character does not gel. Toni Collette takes over Mary's voice as she reaches adulthood, and all the voice cast does a great job, especially Hoffman, whose gruff, complex Max, so filled with self-loathing is almost unrecognisable. The narrative struggles to stretch the distance, however, despite the film's many impressive qualities. It's quirky, funny and decidedly black. One thing is for sure. It is not intended for kids, which brings up the question whether or not adult audiences will embrace it, or whether its appeal will be limited to screenings at festivals.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Tremendously inventive, clever and wise, Mary and Max is a story for grown ups about life's dissonances. It's a dark work, often challenging with its surface humour - by virtue of the medium, where the clay creatures are of themselves whimsical - but it is ultimately sombre and at times it borders on infotainment about Asperger's Syndrome. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it does change the mood, like changing gears from third to reverse. It's crunchy. At its heart, it's about our need for love and acceptance, highlighted by characters who are not easy to love or accept.

Barry Humphries provides a narration which has the tones of a fable, and there is very little dialogue as such, even though there is a long cast list, many of whom make just a few sounds. The film is entirely visual, dominated by the action of Adam Elliot's imaginary characters, all of whom are based on real, pain-filled persons. Technically, the claymation is wonderful, lively and detailed. Amazing work can be seen in many scenes, where tearful characters have trembling lips that must be agonizingly difficult to film. Details of the settings, both in Melbourne's Waverley and New York's Manhattan, are entertainingly impressionistic yet solid, and the characters are pliable, recognisable and finally tragic.

As a Sundance opener and an official Berlin film fest entry, the film clearly has creative credentials, but I'm not sure what segment of the public, other than committed festival customers, will find it wholly satisfying. There is heartbreak aplenty, but we not so much feel it as intellectually absorb it; there is humour aplenty, too, but it's bottled up, so we can recognise it, without laughing at it. I wanted to laugh and cry - and should have.

Email this article

Favourable: 0
Unfavourable: 0
Mixed: 2


(Aust, 2009)

VOICES: Toni Collette, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Eric Bana, Bethany Whitmore, Ian Molly Meldrum,Renee Geyer, John Flaus,Julie Fosyth

NARRATION: Barry Humphries

PRODUCER: Melanie Coombs

DIRECTOR: Adam Elliot

SCRIPT: Adam Elliot


EDITOR: Bill Murphy

MUSIC: Dale Cornelius


RUNNING TIME: 92 minutes



© Urban Cinefile 1997 - 2020