Made in Australia – Mary and Max review

Mary and Max – Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Toni Collette and Barry Humphries. Directed by Adam Elliot. Rated PG. Originally published April 14, 2009. By Simon Miraudo.

In honour of Australia Day, I am republishing the review for my favourite Aussie film of the last 12 months, Mary and Max.

The universe that is inhabited by Mary and Max is breathtaking and must have required years of painstaking attention to detail to forge. The story however, is magical, and animating talent aside, could only have been created with love and lots of it. Oscar-winning director Adam Elliot has carved an identity for himself as a kooky Clay-maniac, but his debut feature is spectacular for much greater reasons than the stunning animation. It’s a touching tale of friendship; a quirky slice of Australiana; an unflinching account of mental illness; a hilarious and devastating animated masterpiece. And it’s probably the best Australian film of the decade.

The film is based on Elliot’s own twenty-two year pen-friendship, and it shows. A relationship this brutally honest and insightful could only be imagined collaboratively. Mary (voiced by Bethany Whitmore as a child and by Toni Collette as an adult) is a lonely, overweight, 8-year-old girl growing up in Melbourne, Australia. Her mother dips a little too often into the cooking sherry and her father spends most of his time practicing taxidermy in the shed. She’s tormented by the poo-coloured birthmark on her forehead and the subsequent bullying it attracts at school. Desperate for a companion, or at the very least someone to answer her multiple existential questions, she picks a random name from an American phone book and sends them a letter.

Mary has serendipitously chosen New Yorker Max Horowitz (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an obese 44-year-old man suffering from Asperger’s syndrome. If anyone in the world is as confused, lonely and desperate for a friend as Mary, it’s Max. The two bond quickly, and truly, as they fire letters back and forth across the continents, combined with odd chocolate concoctions for the other to enjoy. Sometimes their blisteringly truthful and literal responses send the other into a tailspin. There are suicide attempts, nervous breakdowns and even a manslaughter charge thrown into the mix. Is friendship really worthy all this pain?

In 2009 alone, Philip Seymour Hoffman has portrayed a priest accused of sexual molestation, a raucous rock and roll DJ and a neurotic playwright obsessed with his own mortality. Throw in his nearly unrecognizable vocal talents as Max and you have all the evidence necessary to call this man one of the greatest actors of our generation. The intonation in his voice; Max’s raspy certainty in Every. Word. That Comes. Out. Of. His. Mouth. The wheezing nervousness that could be one wheeze away from a full-blown breakdown. Whenever he’s not on screen, you pray for more narration from Max as he types his long letters to little Mary.

And here is the intrinsic problem with Mary and Max that keeps it from being an absolute classic. The film is ALL narration. The characters only speak in voiceover when the contents of their letters are being read. An unnamed narrator (an excellent Barry Humphries) describes every other event and emotion not covered in the letters. Elliot has written less of a film and more of a storybook. As the film ticks past the 30 minute mark, it becomes apparent how little narrative tension there really is. However, Elliot IS a good screenwriter and his dense characterisation is funnier, sweeter and truer than that seen in most live action films. These are just nitpicks that come with the territory, and for what it’s worth, I feel terrible for raising them. The narrative finds its way in the final half hour and the film moves so quickly you’ll be hard pressed to remember any complaints you may have held.

Mary and Max isn’t exactly a kids film, although it’s exactly the kind of film more kids should see. The film’s message of friendship and identity are so true and so effective. Mary and Max deserve to go in the pantheon of great animated heroes, and the film has also earned its place amongst other truly great animated films. Part of me thinks, “Imagine what Elliot could do with a live-action film!” Then again, there are plenty of great directors and screenwriters working with real human beings, with varying levels of success. There’s only one Elliot and he’s the only one who could have made Mary and Max. So, more films like this please.


Check out my other reviews here.

One Response to “Made in Australia – Mary and Max review”

  1. I saw this on the weekend – it was so touching. But I would disagree about too much narration – I think this made the film unique. The characters have trouble expressing themselves (which comes across in their letters) and hence the narrator bridges the gap between them and us.

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