I’ll admit this up front: if your main goal in watching Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? (2013) is to arrive at an answer to the titular question, you’ll be disappointed. Almost none of the film’s meandering 88 minutes, if any at all, are devoted to meditations on correlative assessments of height and happiness.
It is hard, in fact, to say what the 88 minutes are devoted to–the movie covers so much ground while moving so slowly that it’s hard to understand, when it ends, how it’s been less than six hours, much less an hour and a half. Some of this impression may come from the altered mental state in which I watched Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?, but that caveat is not at all beside the point, since I can give the film my wholehearted recommendation only to those planning on ingesting herbal enhancements before viewing. Luckily, its availability on Netflix instant play ensures this is a feasible pre-watching activity.
Indeed, Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? is, while perhaps far from stereotypical stoner cinema, an essential entry into the genre. What it is–and I apologize for taking so long to get to the point–is a 90-minute conversation between the linguist Noam Chomsky (calling him a linguist is like calling Da Vinci a painter) and French filmmaker Michel Gondry (whose filmography includes, among others, cult classic Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay).
The genesis of the film, Gondry explains at the outset, came from his interest in Chomsky’s ideas dating back to his appearance on “some DVDs [Gondry] picked up at the video store a few years ago.” What DVDs those are, or why any profit-maximizing video store would stock them, is another point entirely, but Gondry quickly goes on to describe Chomsky as “the most important thinker alive,” presented as a quote from no one in particular.
He set out to interview Chomsky–twice, it turns out–and supplement the audio of the interviews with animation because “animation is clearly the interpretation of the author… it’s up to [the audience] to decide if they’re convinced or not.”
The introduction does not end before Gondry has made his first of several slightly uncomfortable references to Chomsky’s old age and mortality, which are often cited in Gondry’s commentary interludes as a source of stress and impetus for Gondry to hurry his work on the film.
Post-introduction, we’re launched immediately into the first interview, which begins with some Chomsky biographical information (did you know he, too, is a product of so-called “liberal learning” educational systems?). Then we get the meat of the film: an exploration of human language development and the wide range of fields by which its study has been influenced and now influences–philosophy, psychology, biology, physics, and so on.
The individual topics covered are interesting enough to make it worthwhile. One particularly interesting section discusses words as reference points: does my usage of “cow” articulate a concrete, identifiable thing that we an all agree is a cow? Chomsky says it doesn’t: we can’t pick out what a “cow” is, in my usage, without knowing something more of my brain–a potential evolutionary problem for humans, the only species to experience this phenomenon.
The film is filled with little theories like these, supplemented by Gondry’s colorful and frequently trippy animation. Occasionally Gondry cuts in with a question, and his thick accent provides a some-time barrier to communication between him and Chomsky, a source of mild amusement to both the viewer and, fortunately, Gondry himself.
Gondry is able to maintain a tone of interest, amusement, and, at times, bemusement throughout the whole thing. It’s not a shoot-’em-up action movie, and you might find it best enjoyed in two sittings, but its worthwhile. Especially, as we noted before, if the supplements are at hand.