Movie review: Director aims lens at leftist scholar

THE NEW YORK TIMESFebruary 21, 2014 


    Rated: Not rated. Starring: Noam Chomsky, Michel Gondry. Director: Michel Gondry. Running time: 88 minutes. Theater: Flicks.

An easygoing, sometimes tough-going meander through the world of ideas, the animated documentary “Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?” finds the French director Michel Gondry playing wide-eyed student to none other than Noam Chomsky.

They’re a charmingly unpredictable, appealing match. Gondry, best known for films such as “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “The Green Hornet,” has occasionally dipped into documentary.

Noam Chomsky is, well, Noam Chomsky: the linguist, philosopher and author — he has more than 100 books to his name — who’s often better known for his leftist politics. Born on Dec. 7, 1928, Chomsky belongs to that rare American species, the public intellectual, and his website,, testifies to the breadth and depth of his impact in a section called “Writings on Chomsky.”

After Gondry and Chomsky met, they decided to animate their conversations to reveal the filmmaking process that ordinarily remains hidden for the viewer’s pleasure (and manipulation).

Using old-fashioned, hand-drawn animation, a bright and pulsing palette, and live interviews shot with a 16-millimeter film camera (a Bolex), Gondry lays bare his own process as well as his intellectual anxieties as he gently questions and sometimes prods the patient Chomsky.

Among their topics is the sentence that gives the movie its title and that Chomsky has used, by moving one word, to argue that the linguistic information children receive is insufficient to explain how they acquire the grammar of language.

“It seems plain,” Chomsky has written, “that language acquisition is based on the child’s discovery of what, from a formal point of view, is a deep and abstract theory — a generative grammar of his language — many of the concepts and principles of which are only remotely related to experience by long and intricate chains of unconscious quasi-inferential steps.”

When Chomsky diagrams the title sentence with a marker to reveal its grammatical structure, Gondry makes those words come cogently to life.

Blissfully unconventional as a documentary and as an intellectual endeavor, “Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?” won’t tell you everything you’ve always wanted to know about Chomsky. But it will go a ways toward smoothing over some rough patches.

One of the pleasures of the movie is that Gondry remains acutely tuned into these passages, which he addresses with a startling openness and a lack of directorial ego. This is a movie that celebrates the life of a great mind and makes a case for the mind that knows less but keeps on asking.

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