That begins 20 years of correspondence in which Mary and Max (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman) become each other's best (and effectively only) friend in the world, despite the paralyzing anxiety the former's letters strike in the latter (with their uncomfortable questions like, "Where do babies come from?"), and despite the efforts of Mary's perpetually plastered, kleptomaniac mother to stop the letters dead in their tracks. And who can blame her, really? After all, this sort of relationship between an older man and a pre-pubescent girl just isn't done, just isn't normal.
Well, as it happens, nothing in Mary and Max is within even shouting distance of normal. A true outsider's movie, the closest it comes to a "well-adjusted" or "socially acceptable" character may be the bully who terrorizes young Mary on the schoolhouse playground. But the rest of Elliot's claymated ensemble suggest the love children of Roald Dahl and Todd Solondz -- among them Mary's withdrawn, taxidermy-obsessed father, her legless, agoraphobic neighbor and the nearly blind atheist woman who regularly cooks Max bowls of disgusting soup. (And to think, I haven't even mentioned Max's imaginary friend, Mr. Ravioli.) In Elliot's world, even the animals are outcasts: Mary gives shelter to a rooster that falls of a slaughter wagon, while Max's pet cat is a one-eyed stray with chronic halitosis. Max is also the owner of a series of pet goldfish, all named Henry, each of whom dies a stranger and more grotesque death than the one before -- as for that matter do many of the movie's human characters.
Pixar this most certainly isn't. In fact, where most feature-length animated films, by sheer virtue of the painstaking labor involved, aim to reach the broadest possible audience, Mary and Max -- which took over a year to produce, at an average rate of five seconds of finished animation per day -- is as insular and private as any live-action "personal filmmaking." As it happens, Elliot did base the film in part on his own longtime pen-pal relationship with a New York man diagnosed (like Max) with Asperger Syndrome, the autism-like disorder that limits its sufferers' ability to interpret nonverbal communication. But when I say Mary and Max is a personal film, I mean more in spirit than in letter. I mean that this is a movie that seems to well up from a place of such pain and suffering that it's as if Elliot had cut open some long scabbed-over wound and let it bleed anew all over the screen. Certain to traumatize children (and even some adults), Mary and Max may be the first "cartoon" that will find its most sympathetic audiences in support groups and mental hospitals.
This isn't exactly new territory for Elliot, whose films could be considered the antidote to 98 percent of Hollywood movies and television programs, with their smiling, airbrushed characters who rarely encounter a problem that can't be resolved by the end of act three, and who seem far more plasticine than Elliot's clay avatars. The title character of Harvie Krumpet was a Touette's-afflicted Polish refugee who gets struck by lightning, loses a testicle and eventually succumbs to the ravages of Alzheimer's and suicidal depression. Likewise, Mary and Max spirals towards suicide (and electroshock therapy), occasionally permitting a ray of hope to shine down on the characters, only to just as soon dash it with storm clouds. When the post-graduate Mary authors a book-length study of Asperger's, a humiliated Max shows his appreciation by ripping the "M" key from his typewriter and dropping it in the mail. And when Mary finds what she thinks is love in the form of a handsome classmate, he turns out to have his own very special, very male pen-pal -- with benefits.
The depressive air weighs heavy, but never quite overwhelms the film, thanks to Elliot's unfailing ability to find moments of levity amidst the pervasive despair. In spite of everything I've said thus far, Mary and Max is a very funny movie that manages to laugh at its eccentric characters without mocking them, reducing them to grotesques, or suggesting that they should strive to "overcome" their "handicaps." In Elliot's view, to paraphrase the Firesign Theatre, we're all manic depressives on this bus, and how much you enjoy the film may well depend on whether you share in that opinion or simply can't understand why these miserable people don't quit their whining and get with the program.
When I left the opening-night screening of Mary and Max, I wasn't entirely sure if Elliot had pulled the thing off, and even 36 hours later, I think the movie errs in the way of many a debut feature made by directors accustomed to working in the short form. That is, it runs out of ideas before it runs out of running time. At 60 minutes, the movie might have been great. At 90, it remains a strikingly original, uncompromising piece of work. Visually, it is a marvel of tinsel-and string, hand-crafted design, from the pale, pear-shaped characters to its vision of New York City as a chiaroscuro urban jungle in which the only flashes of color are those that arrive in the post from Down Under. Then there is Hoffman's splendid performance, which demands an even more dramatic vocal disappearing act than Truman Capote's adenoidal whine. Max's voice -- a raspy, Yiddish-inflected huff -- is so difficult to imagine issuing forth from Hoffman that if you didn't know it was him you, well, wouldn't know it was him. And what greater compliment can one pay a character actor than that?
In the eight years that I've been covering Sundance, this is one of the only times the opening night film has been less than a calamitous failure, and maybe the only time it has been a movie of serious ambition, worth talking, thinking and arguing about afterward. "This can be a very inspiring time for artists," Robert Redford opined on the stage of the Eccles Theatre just prior to the Mary and Max screening, trying to put some kind of optimistic spin on the current hard times. That's the sort of programmatic spiel (like last year's dubious festival mantra, "Focus On Film") that usually makes hardened Sundance vets roll their eyes. But after seeing Mary and Max, I can't help thinking that Redford might be on to something.