Jewish Journal

Day Two at Sundance:  Philip Seymour Hoffman, the Opening Night Jew

by Larry Mark

January 16, 2009 | 6:25 pm

Philip Seymour Hoffman's

Jewish character in

Mary and Max

By Larry Mark

The Sundance Film Festival 2009 opened on Thursday night with an Australian clay animation feature, “Mary and Max,” written and directed by Adam Elliot, a Sundance veteran and Oscar winner for best animated short in 2004.  “Mary and Max” features the voices of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Eric Bana, Toni Collette and Barry Humphries (a.k.a Dame Edna) as the narrator.  Think of it as an Australian “Wallace and Gromit” meets “About Schmidt,” but one painted in dark tones of brown, gray and black.  The movie deals with the serious issues of mental illness, death, and depression; it is neither a “Nemo” nor a “Shrek,” since it is mostly a tragedy sprinkled with bits of comedy.

This is the first time that an animated feature has opened Sundance.  And with the critical success of the Israeli film “Waltz with Bashir,” perhaps we are at the beginning of a cinematic trend in darker-themed animation.

“Mary and Max” is about a pen pal friendship that endures for over two decades between Mary Dinkle, an 8 year old girl in a Melbourne suburb, and Max Jerry Horowitz, a 44-year-old obese Jewish man who lives in black and gray isolation in New York City.  Max has a variety of short-term jobs and suffers from an undiagnosed case of Asperger‘s Syndrome, while Mary has a relatively absent father who works in a tea bag factory and a perpetually drunk mother.  Both endured teasing throughout their childhoods.  I scored a ticket to the opening screening of the film, as well as the after party.

Remarkably, the film is based on a true story… that of Max Elliot‘s life, the film’s writer and director.  Elliot, the son of a trampoline salesman, grew up on an (unkosher) prawn farm in Australia (yes, they really do put shrimps on the barbie there); and he has had a pen pal, or “pen friend” as he calls it, from America since childhood.  It was all on account of his joining a fan site for animation in his late teens and clicking on a box indicating that he would like a pen pal.  Elliot’s pen friend, whom he has never actually met, is a Jewish man from New York City, who, although not named Max, does suffer from Asperger’s Syndrome, and who has been in a nursing home for the past few months recovering from surgery.  Not even Philip Seymour Hoffman, a resident of New York, who lent the voice to the character of Max, has met Elliot’s actual pen pal.

Creating a stop motion “claymation” film is a slow and arduous process, Elliot said.  On average, only five seconds of film are created a day.  Elliot likened the process to “making love and being stabbed to death at the same time.”  The 92-minute film took 57 weeks of actual shooting, a crew of 50, and five years to finally complete.  As an Australian production, over 65 percent of the funding came from the Australian government.

As the story proceeds, Mary grows older and taller, as Max grows wider and fatter.  The browns get more chocolate-hued, and the grays darker, with occasional highlights of spot-red to symbolically highlight something, like a pompom on top of Max’s kippah, which he wears even though he is an atheist.  Elliot told me this was his homage to the spot-color used in “Schindler’s List.”  In Elliot’s film, the back story is that Max’s father abandoned his family, and Max’s mother, who raised the boy on a kibbutz, killed herself when Max was 6.  A very sad childhood indeed.  Max is a creature of habit and his diet consists of kugel and blintzes, as well as fish sticks.  (Speaking of blintzes, the director took his parents to Nate ‘n’ Al’s deli in Los Angeles last week, where, Elliot told me, his father “tried a ‘cheesy’ blintz and a turkey blintz for the first time”).  Max’s wardrobe consists of eight tracksuits, all the same color.  When he sends Mary a letter, he bids the package a ritual farewell with a Yiddish phrase, “geh, gezunt a heit.”

Elliot is not Jewish.  I asked him how he came up with the Yiddish phrase and Jewish foodstuffs.  Mostly he queried his Jewish friends in Melbourne, where he said there is a significant Jewish community, “especially a large group of Holocaust survivors.”  His friends gave him the Yiddish phrase and also told him that he had to include “Yentl’s noodle kugel.”  The actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman, also a non-Jew, had trouble with the Yiddish phrase.  At first, he used a more autistic, “Rain Man-like” voice for Max, but the director had him soften his tone, which helped him to create a more approachable character. 

Because of his Asperger’s, Max is unable to perceive the visual cues from others’ facial expressions, so he carries around a guide to facial emotions in order to discern if people are happy (smiling) or angry (frowning).  The fact that his partially blind neighbor, Ivy, who suffers from alopecia, has no real eyebrows, presents quite a problem in reading her mood.  Mary does not have that problem, since she wears a mood ring that tells her how she is feeling.

What I found so Jewish about this film was not only the character of Max and his rabbinical style of advice, but the movie’s “haggadic” telling of the story of human relationships.  Like the seder’s four question’s, Mary questions and Max responds; their decades-long dialogue informs them and connects them to each other and the human community.  Max teaches Mary that it is wrong for her to naively think that she can cure his Asperger’s Syndrome.  It would be like changing the color of his eyes. The message is that while we cannot choose our relatives, we can choose our friends; that we are all flawed; and that we should aspire to live in spite of our flaws and not hide behind them.  All this makes “Mary and Max,” to me, even more of a Jewish film than meets the naked eye.

For more information, visit the Sundance website.

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Danielle Berrin writes the award-winning Hollywood Jew blog, a cutting edge, values-based take on the entertainment industry for jewishjournal.com. A Los Angeles Times profile...

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