Sitting down to watch the movie again, the Mouse watched the opening credits unfold, complete with a claim by the filmmakers that it was “based on a true story”.
The movie began in Australia (the nation where Britain had put convicts too dangerous for polite society and God had put animals too dangerous for the jungle), specifically in the small town of Mount Waverly which Mouse was both surprised and saddened to learn was a real place. The narrator introduced the main character, Mary Daisy Dinkle (Bethany Whitmore), an eight year old girl with a birthmark on her forehead and no friends. Her father worked, the narrator informed Mouse, in a tea-bag factory attaching the labels to the bags with string. This was exactly the kind of job a parent in a Roald Dahl novel might have, Mouse mused. Perhaps Noel Dinkle and Charlie Bucket’s father were in the same union? Also introduced was Vera, Mary’s Mother, a kleptomaniac alcoholic who spent her days shop-lifting, getting stonkered on sherry and listening to cricket commentary on the radio.
Having introduced one of the main characters and her supporting cast, the narration then continued. For the rest of the movie. Incessantly.
This, Mouse thought, was the big problem. The narration. Not that it was badly written (it was in fact often very witty) or badly performed either. The narrator was Australian actor Barry Humphries, best known for playing Dame Edna and (according to his Wikipedia profile) either “the most significant comedian to emerge since Charlie Chaplin” or someone with a fan who had Wikipedia edit permissions and zero objectivity. But Humphries certainly had a way with dry delivery, no argument there. The trouble was that the narration simply never stopped. It was as if the filmmakers had no confidence in the ability of their images to tell the story. This was a film (a visual artwork, no less) that could be watched with one’s eyes closed and enjoyed as an audio book. Convenient for long-distance truckers, perhaps. And a boon for the blind, no doubt. But not exactly the sign of good movie-making.
Mary had become curious as to where babies came from, but as her mother was not coherent forthcoming on the topic she decided to take matters into her own hands. On a visit to the post office, Mary took a page from an American phonebook and and decided to write to one of the names at random. She wrote a letter to “M. Horowitz” asking him where babies came from and including some Australian chocolate as a gift. She also asked him if liked condensed milk, as that was her favorite food. She sent off the letter and waited patiently for a reply. While the film had chosen to depict Mount Waverly in a palette seemingly inspired by the Bristol Stool Chart, New York now appeared like something from the works of Frank Miller.
Turn the right corner in Sin City, and you can find anything.
The movie now introduced Max Horowitz (the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman), a morbidly obese man who lived alone in an apartment and suffered from extreme social anxiety. Max lived his life according to a very strict routine, and was extremely upset to received Mary’s letter without warning. However, after eighteen hours of staring out the window, he finally mustered up the courage to write back.
“Man, writer’s block. Been there.” thought Mouse glumly.
Max relates to Mary what he was taught about babies, namely that they hatch from eggs that are laid by rabbis (if you are Jewish), nuns (in the case of Catholics) and dirty lonely prostitutes (if one is atheist).
“Amazing” thought Mouse “I think of Frank Miller and within less than a minute someone’s insulted prostitutes. It’s like magic.”
Max then told Mary the sad story of his life; how his father had abandoned him and his mother on a kibbutz in Israel and how she then commited suicide when he was six years old. He told her about how New York disagreed with him, saying “I would rather live somewhere quieter. Like the moon.” He then noted that he had never tried condensed milk, but that he would that week. Max finished his letter to Mary by saying “I find humans interesting. But I have trouble understanding them. I think however, I will understand and trust you.”
The Mouse felt uneasy. He could not deny that, even with the over-use of narration, this was a very good film. The writing was excellent, the performances solid and the animation was technically very strong. But there was an ugliness to the movie. The world of the film was filthy and grimy, and the characters all grotesque and malformed. This was intentional, Mouse knew. But he didn’t have to like it, and he certainly didn’t enjoy it.
Back in Australia, Vera read Max’s letter in horror and threw it in the bin. Mouse had to admit that he sort of understood where Vera was coming from. If his own daughter ever struck up an online correspondence with a forty four year old man in another country he would probably confiscate her phone and her computer and detonate an EMP to knock out all electronic communication in the neighbourhood just to be on the safe side. Anyway, Mary found the letter and wrote back to Max, telling him to address all future letters to her elderly neighbour Len, a war veteran who had both his legs eaten off by pirahnas loyal to the Empire of Japan. Len never left his house, as he was agoraphobic. Although if he lived in Australia, Mouse thought, he’d never want to go outside either so perhaps Len was simply suffering from rationality.
The Sydney Tunnel Web Spider is outside. Fuck outside.
That would probably have to be his last Australia joke, Mouse thought. If he kept going, Paper Alchemist might send him a snake in the post.
Mary told Max that she had no friends and she was being teased in school because of her birthmark. One boy had even stolen her lunch and then pissed on it. She asked Max for advice, but unfortunately her letter triggered a flood of repressed memories for Max of his own experiences with bullies and he had a major panic attack. Finally, he composed himself enough to respond to her letter, advising that she tell the bully that her birthmark meant that she would be in charge of distributing chocolate in heaven when she died, and that he wouldn’t get any.
“Alternatively, simply inform Bill Watters that his copyright is being infringed and let the lawyers do the rest.”
As their correspondence went on, Mary told Max about Damien Popadoplous, the Greek boy next door who she had a crush on. She asked Max about sex, how it was done, and whether he had done it himself. This triggered YET ANOTHER panic attack, as Max was deeply uncomfortable with human intimacy in all its forms. This last one was simply too much and Max was finally forcibly removed from his apartment and committed.
Man. That is such a classic “NY Times” headline.
Max was diagnosed with acute depression and obesity (that’s some grade-A diagnosin’, boys) and was marinated in a cocktail of mood-altering drugs and subjected to electroshock treatment. Like most movies, Mary and Max choose to depict electroshock treatment not as a painless and often very effective modern medical procedure, but as a diabolical frying of the brain with lightning while a mad scientist quite stood by the switch screaming “Live! LIIIIIIIIIIVE!” In fact, the portrayal of psychiatry in this film was so relentlessly negative that Mouse found himself wondering just who had funded its creation.
After some years, Max finally wrote to Mary again, explaining that he had been diagnosed with Asperger’s and listing the symptoms of the condition; literal-mindedness, bad hand writing, difficulty in reading facial cues, clumsiness, hyper-sensitivity and a knack for problem solving. Max told Mary that his psychiatrist had told him that a cure would soon be discovered, but that he did not wish to be cured, as he felt his condition was an essential part of who he was. The only thing he would change, he wrote to her, would be the ability to cry.
Mary, who had become inconsolable when Max had ceased writing, was delighted to hear from him again, and sent him a small jar of her own tears as a gift. They continued to write to each other and as the years passed, Mary began to grow in confidence and self-respect. She went to university to study mental disorders and even married Damien Popadopolous in a lavish Greek ceremony.
“OPA!” yelled the Mouse, his Greek heritage briefly and violently asserting itself.
Mary wrote to Max, giddily describing her wedding day and their blissful honeymoon on the Greek island of Mykonos.
“Pah! Mykonos!” Mouse hissed “Those sons of goats!”. He then paused the movie to allow his hellenic genes to return to their dormant state, before resuming.
At college Mary excelled and dedicated her life to curing mental illness, devouring all the great texts on the subject.
One might argue that if you’re talking to a homicidal maniac, you’re pretty Not OK.
Mary eventually wrote her thesis on Asperger’s, using Max as a case study and even publishing a book on the subject. She sent Max the very first copy, promising him half the royalties and saying that she believed that with time his condition could be cured.
Yeah. She uses your private correspondence for professional gain and writes a book about you behind your back but YOU’RE the one who doesn’t get social norms. You take those pills Max, you take all you need.
In response he wrote an extremely angry letter to Mary, but could not express himself adequetly and so communicated his outrage with perfect eloquence; by tearing out the “M” key from his keyboard and mailing it back to Mary. Mary, to her credit, realised what she had done and promptly had every copy of the book pulped. Her friendship with Max in flames and her career as shredded as her books, Mary slipped into a deep alcoholic depression. She mailed Max a can of condensed milk with the words “I’M SORRY” scrawled on it and waited for a response, but nothing came. Finally, even Damien could take no more and left Mary to be with his New Zealand penpal, Desmond.
Mouse rolled his eyes. That tired old trope again. He had very little patience for the old stereotype that all Greek men were secretly gay.
This picture was…uh…was supposed to be a map of…somewhere…
This being an animated movie suitable for twelve year olds, Mary of course became suicidal and decided to hang herself.
Well, this was certainly bleak, Mouse thought. But, he wondered, was there perhaps any detail that the movie might be able to add just to ensure the despair of this scene was utterly soul-crushing?
Ah, theeeere we go.
Mouse watched as Mary, unwittingly pregnant, held a handful of her mother’s old valium and prepared to hang herself from the ceiling and tried to remember when he had watched cartoons to feel better about the world. But all that remained in his memory now was endless, inky void. The scene unfolded to a heart-breakingly sad rendition of “Que sera, sera” as the valium hit and the room melted away, leaving only empty black and the faces of Mary’s lost loved ones floating before her eyes. But just before she could step off the table, a knock on the doory jolted her back to consciousness. Wearily answering the door, she found Len, who had finally conquered his agoraphobia to bring her a parcel that had arrived from Max. His duty done, Len then quickly returned back home as he knew that those Funnel Web Spiders do not fuck around. Inside the parcel Mary found a letter from Max saying that he forgave her because “You are not perfect. You are imperfect. And so am I. All humans are imperfect. You are my best friend. You are my only friend.”
A year later, Mary arrived in New York along with her three month old child. She paid the taxi driver, and began the long climb up the stairs to Max’s apartment. Knocking on the door, she found no answer and finally let herself in. And there, lying peacefully on the couch, she found Max’s body in the apartment where he had died alone…
Mouse shut off the movie.
For five, maybe ten minutes, he simply sat in silence.
At last he got up and went to look at himself in the mirror.
He then did something that he had not done in a very long time. He stared at his own reflection, and tried to guess what he was thinking.
The Mouse, to put it bluntly, was odd. And he had always been odd.
As a child he had always struggled with social situations and had very few friends. Eye contact had made him very uncomfortable. He was prone to obsessive behaviour, fidgeting with bits of chain and paper clips. Always compiling lists, and ranking things. He had always felt awkward and adrift, as if human interaction was at best a second language to him. As he had gotten older he had learned, slowly, and often painfully, to mask his oddness. He had gone to college and found friends who he could be himself with, and paradoxically, because he could be more odd with them, he felt more normal. And he had met the love of his life, someone with whom he could finally speak the language fluently, who he relied on day in day out to keep him…here. In the now. For he was still odd, even now.
He was forever unfocused and often struggled to hold in his mind dates and names and faces. How often had he had to be reminded by his wife how he knew someone? How often had he become lost on his way to a place he had been many times before? How many times had he had learn how to do some trivial task, and then re-learn, and then re-learn, and then re-learn?
And although he would never claim to suffer…no that was the wrong word. Although his oddness, whatever it was, had never approached the severity of Max’s, the Mouse could not help but recognise something of himself in the clay man. And maybe that was it. Perhaps the intense dislike he felt for this film had nothing to do with its qualities as a work of art. Perhaps it was the unsettling thought that, without the support, patience and love (yes, that most of all) of family, friends and wife, he might have ended up in a place not a million miles from Max’s dank, desolate apartment? No one likes to be reminded how lucky they are, and just how bad things might have gotten. Maybe it was time for him to simply acknowledge that this was a film he simply could not review objectively, and leave it at that.
No rating, no final score. The end.
The Mouse pushed “schedule” and turned the laptop off. He crept quietly upstairs and slipped under the covers and put his arm around his wife. In the darkness she stirred.
“How’d writing go?” she murmured, half asleep.
“Good.” he whispered “I’m happy with it.”
“Cool. You still have to publish an apology on the blog for implying that I read 50 Shades of Grey.”
“I know. I will.”
“You’d better. Or you’re dead. Good night.”
“Love you too.”
And, with a contented sigh, the Mouse fell asleep.
: 20 February 2015 is the second round of eliminations in the Charity Movie Deathmatch. Details on how to take part are HERE.
NEXT REVIEW: 05 March 2015. March is “Cats” month of Unshaved Mouse, and we’ll be taking a look at the beloved cult classic Cat’s Don’t Dance!
Neil Sharpson aka The Unshaved Mouse is a playwright, blogger and comic book writer living in Dublin. The blog updates with a new animated movie review every second Thursday. He’s also serialising his novel The Hangman’s Daughter with a new chapter every Saturday. This review was made semi-possible by the kind donation of Conor Kelly. Thanks Conor.