Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?

How odd: a film about Noam Chomsky by Michel Gondry. And how great: a lucid dream about the basic nature of human communication. Neither a hagiography nor an ad hominem attack, this refreshingly agenda-less movie is self-described as “an animated conversation” for reasons of literal accuracy. It results from Gondry hanging out in Chomsky’s MIT office, encouraging the famed linguist to hold forth on the history of science and how language works, then illustrating what he says with hand-drawn animation. Chomsky’s got an answer, usually a long answer, for everything — except, tellingly, the question of what makes him happy. He considers that question an indulgence, which seems prudent when it’s coming from Gondry, the illustrious French auteur of digressive whimsy. But that’s part of why this meeting of minds is so fertile. Gondry says he uses a lot of his own misunderstanding as a source of inspiration, and what’s amazing here is how well his stylistically primitive but in fact very visually sophisticated drawings clarify Chomsky’s sometimes confounding prattle. The film’s clunky title might seem like a willful Gondryism of imperfect English, but actually it’s from Chomsky, who stresses how important it is that, given “the man who is tall is happy,” children just know which “is” to move to turn that statement into a question. (We’ll just have to do without the obvious improvement that neither man suggests: “Is the tall man happy?”)