Review: Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?

Noam Chomsky in “Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?”
Noam Chomsky in “Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?”

On a certain level, a movie is an experience simulator. A Bond film allows us to taste the extremes of masculine success. A horror film brings us into life-threatening situations while allowing us the comfort of being able to remove ourselves at any time. Here is something harder to account for: a conversation simulator.

“Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?” is an 88-minute recording of conversation between filmmaker Michel Gondry and legendary scientist and political theorist Noam Chomsky. The audio is accompanied by Gondry’s doodles, illustrating the words spoken with whimsical literality.

Gondry is a natural surrogate for the viewer ­– a fish out of water, less precise in his words than Chomsky, though at least Gondry has the excuse of not being a native English-speaker. Gondry chooses not to edit out an exchange in which his Frenchified mispronunciation of “endowment” brings the conversation to a halt for an agonizing half-minute. It’s touches like this that elevate this film above the half-dozen other documentaries centering on Chomsky.

A deep conversation, as opposed to an interview or a lecture, often combines the abstruse and the intimate in unexpected ways. Starting with linguistics, physics and history, “Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?” eventually moves on to Chomsky’s childhood and his deceased wife, whom he recalls tenderly. Chomsky identifies the quality of productive scientists as “a willingness to be puzzled by seemingly simple things.” Perhaps this is the secret to productive conversation as well.