'Mary and Max' mixes reality and whimsy sensationally

By Tatiana Craine

Mary and Max, brainchild of Adam Elliott, took more than five years to blossom from dream into reality. The Australian film debuted in the United States at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival earlier this year to glowing reviews-for good reason.
“Mary and Max” at first appears like any other clay animation film: a little quirky, sort of cute and mildly clever. And yet, appearances can be deceiving. “Mary and Max” is no “Chicken Run,” nor “Wallace and Gromit” and most definitely not “Gumby.” The film tackles big issues like alcoholism, obesity, depression, mental illness, mild drug abuse, neglect and suicide. However, the film achieves a feel-good level far beyond the despondent topics presented. Hope battles the melancholy-filled lives Mary and Max both lead. The film flows like a visual and poignant epistolary novel told from a child’s perspective, grappling with depressing events with dry humor and wit, simplicity and frankness.
Mary Daisy Dinkle, an eight-year-old girl with a splotchy birthmark on her forehead, lives a rather blasé life in Australia. Her alcoholic mother chain-smokes from a permanently lipsticked maw, and her eccentric father finds delight in avian taxidermy. Mary’s unassuming looks make it difficult for her to find true friends. As her mother uses a five-finger discount for some envelopes at the post office, Mary flips curiously through an American phonebook. She finds a certain Max Jerry Horowitz and decides to write him a letter.

Thousands of miles away, Max Horowitz, a 44-year-old man in New York City receives Mary’s letter with extreme apprehension. Max, a secularJew with an over-eating disorder, cannot handle the abrupt upset to his extremely methodical life. Max has a drab apartment with a typewriter, several pets (including a series of constantly dying goldfish each named Henry) and a supply of chocolate. The incredibly idiosyncratic man finally responds to little Mary’s letter. He tells her about his fondness for chocolate hot dogs, his invisible friend Mr. Ravioli and his disgust for cigarette butts.

And there starts a platonic pen-friendship that spans a tumultuous two decades from 1976 to the mid-1990s. The unlikely pair divulges their deepest secrets, fears and dreams to each other, unconsciously pouring their hearts out. Mary and Max help one another with heartfelt solutions to heart-wrenching problems, and together they grow mentally and emotionally. Mary deals with peer pressure, a boy named Damien and her mother’s mounting problems with alcoholism while Max attends Over-Eaters Anonymous sessions, visits a psychiatrist and stays in a mental institution. Twenty years bring a slew of unforeseeable adventures and hazards. At times, it looks as if the couple’s friendship can’t last; however, the philosophical and emotional support they provide each other outlast any setbacks.

Toni Collette (Mary) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (Max) carry the movie on incredibly talented shoulders, giving a sense of emotional reality to caricatured clay-mation figures. (Mary resembles Marcy from “Peanuts,” and Max just looks ridiculously obese in a tracksuit.) Collette delivers a well-calculated performance as the very reasonable and curious Mary. Hoffman nearly steals the show with a stereotypical New York Jewish accent, his character raspy, worried and loveable all at once.

“Mary and Max” conveys a darkly whimsical and always endearing story about friendship and learning to love oneself without being sententious or overly-dramatic. The film goes down a little like one of Max’s recommended recipes-chocolate pop rocks and Coke-a bit upsetting and chilling, but ultimately bubbly and fun with a few hiccups along the way.