Noam Chomsky and humor are connected about as closely as repelling magnets. As you grope for familiar words during one of the octogenarian’s lectures, you may conclude that the linguist, media critic, professor, philosopher—his titles seem endless—knows everything about everything. Chomsky is a fascinating bore.
Which is why Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? turns out to be such an entertaining surprise. Director Michel Gondry, known for trippy music videos and features including Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, interviews Chomsky, but instead of presenting the interview as a 60 Minutes–style sit-down, Gondry animates the conversation with drawings that are crudely childlike, somewhat self-mocking, and often quite funny.
Gondry calls film and video manipulative, given the filmmaker’s ability to edit footage to his or her liking and present a work in which context may dominate content. For this film, Gondry chose animation to ensure—or at least try to ensure—that the audience focused on Chomsky’s ideas. But the director sinks his own battleship with illustrations that are so clever and droll you’ll sometimes tune out what the professor is saying.
It’s not a bad thing; the film’s 88 minutes zoom. Gondry only sometimes sticks to literal representations; he shakes the frame to depict his own nervousness. But he’s also silly, like when he spells out a woman’s laughter in red “Ha!”s that increase in size, or a scene in which the two discuss Gondry’s girlfriend’s belief in astrology, and Gondry illustrates it with a drawing of her repeatedly punching him in bed.
Most of the content, from Chomsky’s education to how babies acquire language to what purpose organized religion may serve, is not only understandable but riveting. (Though when he casually tosses out theories such as “We identify a dog in terms of psychic continuity,” you might tune out then, too.) Gondry mocks himself when he tries to give an example of one of Chomsky’s ideas—“As you can see, I felt a bit stupid here”—and the director is also amusing when he explains his motivation for the film: “Professor Chomsky is not getting any younger, and I better hurry up.”
And when you are lost amid all the scholarly talk? If you wish to eventually understand, Chomsky’s in your corner. “If you’re not willing to be puzzled,” he says, “you just become a replica of someone else’s mind.”