Pathologized Bodies, Pathologized Minds: Mary and Max (2009, dir. Adam Elliott)

(CW: mental illness, weight loss, ableism)

Mary and Max is one of those films that Netflix has been incessantly recommending to me for years and I kept putting off.  I recently ended up watching it (instead of, say, Jiro Dreams of Sushi) because I noticed that the two titular characters are described as “a chubby 8-year-old Australian girl” and “an obese, adult New Yorker.”  The description of Max’s body stood out.  Other films on Netflix with fat protagonists that I’d come across tended to be more euphemistic.  Paradise: Hope is summarized as being about a girl sent to a “diet camp;”  the heroine of The Hairdresser is described as having a “plump figure;” and in tv series Drop Dead Diva, she’s “plus-sized.”  This could be influenced by gender; Max is a man, and the examples I was able to think of and find on Watch Instantly are about women.  However, when I searched “obesity,” the seven “titles related to obesity” that I got as results were all documentaries related to health and medicine, like The Waiting Room and Forks Over Knives.  As a claymation drama about friendship, Mary and Max seems to have more in common with the aforementioned female-lead narrative films, where fat characters must navigate a world that ostracizes them.  For Max, that ostracization often manifests as pathologization.

Deviating from my previous observation that films rarely tell us characters’ height and weight, Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman) informs Mary (Bethany Whitmore, later Toni Collette) that he is 6 feet tall and weighs 352 lbs.  Max is described as obese in the text of the film, as one of several labels used by institutions to describe him as in need of fixing.  These labels mostly hinder him, but also help: Max was called for jury duty (a position he holds in high esteem) but was dismissed because he had been institutionalized, but later in the film criminal charges brought against him are dismissed because the court deems him “mentally deficient.”  Likewise, he is able to restore balance to his life through help from his psychiatrist and being institutionalized, but the medical system also limits him by describing him as disabled and in need of curing due to Asperger’s syndrome (as well as diagnosing him with obesity).  Max dissents.  He feels that living with Asperger’s (or being an “Aspie,” his preferred term) is as much a part of his identity as the color of his eyes.  He is an outsider, but he maintains the integrity and independence to see a world he doesn’t fit into as nonsensical because it doesn’t make allowances for him, instead of giving in to how the world has labeled him.  Max’s self-loyalty extends to his dietary habits.  He attends Overeaters Anonymous at the advice of his psychiatrist, but doesn’t seem to have any personal motivation for losing weight.  Rather, he takes pleasure in eating chocolate and creates new dishes that are more driven by taste than nutritional value.  Chocolate is important to both Max and Mary as a shared passion, and their correspondences include sending new types of chocolate to each other along with their letters.

Although the film situated Max in a world where he is labeled and ostracized by medical conditions, the film itself does not assign moral judgment to how Max functions or perceives the world.  Max’s eccentricities are occasionally a source of humor, such as his invisible friend Mr. Ravioli.  His fat body is not romanticized, as we often hear his heavy breathing (especially after he gains a significant amount of weight) and see the repeated image of his plumber’s crack when he sits at his typewriter.  But in a departure from how films often depict fat characters’ bodies as grotesque in comparison to thin characters’, the whole cast of Mary and Max is comparably rabelaisian.  I’ve never heard so much incidental farting in a film.  If nothing else, casting the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman to voice Max is a strong indication that the creators of the film intend for the audience to respect Max, as fat outsiders portrayed with warmth and humanity comprise Hoffman’s career.

Neurotypical Mary is better equipped to function in society than Max, but is a ultimately a less-fulfilled person than he.  She too is an outsider, but her sense of fulfillment is more subject to outside approval than her friend’s.  Her body even seems to be a concentration of her homogeneic suburban environment, which is filmed in sepia tint.  (Max’s New York is shown in black and white, perhaps a visual pun on how the Asperger’s mind tends to work.)  The first lines of the film’s narration describe Mary’s body in unappealing terms that highlight her brown-ness: “Mary Dinkle’s eyes were the color of muddy puddles.  She had a birthmark the color of poo.”  She too is fat, but fatness is more of a problem for her as garnering social disapproval than pathologization.  “I’m sad to hear you’re fat,” she writes to Max in one of their early exchanges, “I’m fat too, and mum says I’m growing up to be a heffer.”  When we see her as an adult, she is slimmer.  This physical transformation comes at the same time in her life as voluntary surgery to remove her birthmark and a makeover.  Unfortunately, when her crush Damian (Eric Bana) sees the “new and improved” Mary for the first time, he only comments on the dog shit stuck to her shoe.  Surface physical changes are not enough to free Mary from her indifferent, brown environment, nor from her reliance on Damian’s approval to fuel her self-confidence.  She writes to Max that she wasted her savings, and should have used them to fund a trip to New York.

Although adult Mary’s normative body and ability to navigate institutions like university successfully give her a certain amount of privilege over Max, he subverts the trope of fat best friend who exists to support the maturation of a thinner protagonist.  In their initial correspondence, the two interact as peers, seeking advice and information from each other.  The power dynamic shifts when Mary goes to university and studies psychology.  This is hinted at when she is shown on campus reading a book by Oliver Sachs, a neurologist who has been criticized for exploiting his clients in the interest of his literary career.  Mary finds a way of succeeding in the world that had previously rejected her, and through assimilating into that world, she adopts its pathologizing view of her friend.  When Mary publishes a book about Asperger’s using Max as her case study without his permission, telling him that she hopes to find a “cure,” he reacts in anger.  Instead of one of his typical wordy letters, he sends her the M typebar from his typewriter, dramatically cutting her off from receiving any further communication from him.  This shifts the power dynamic in their relationship a third time.  Max gains power over Mary, as his withdrawal prompts her to pulp every copy of her book before it can be sold and sends her spiralling into depression.   She begs his forgiveness by mailing him the last can of her childhood comfort food, sweetened condensed milk, in her pantry.  But even if this power dynamic contradicts the expected course of their relationship, it isn’t healthy for either of them.  Mary falls deeper into depression and reliance on alcohol, while Max becomes bitter and angry.  When Max learns how to forgive, both of them are redeemed.  Max separates himself from the supportive outsider archetype not only through his expression of anger and withdrawal of support, but by developing as a character alongside his thinner, neurotypical friend.

A third important factor that suggests the film wants us to empathize with Max instead of pathologize him is how he subverts the easy symbolism of his size.  Max is a fat character, but his size is not a physical indicator of greed or insatiability: he is able to achieve satisfaction.  He has three life goals, all of which are acquisitions of things outside of himself:  he wants a lifetime supply of chocolate, a complete collection of Noblet figurines, and a friend.  These goals seem to have foundation in Max’s concrete way of thinking, as opposed to avarice.  In fact, when Max is able to achieve the first two goals when he wins the lottery, he gives the rest of the money to his neighbor.  Max might not even see his death at the end of the film as tragic.  Mary finds him with a contented smile on his face as he gazes at her letters while The Noblets, their shared ideal of friendship, plays on TV.  For Max, their long-distance relationship was fulfilling without them ever being in the same room.

Mary and Max presents us with flawed, eccentric characters who struggle to exist in communities that don’t accommodate them.  However, by focusing on their inner lives and their own means of communicating their feelings and experiences, the film invites the viewer to empathize with the protagonists instead of agreeing with the labels and judgments they are forced to live with.  Despite being lumps of clay, Mary and Max are considerably more human than many of the flesh-and-blood fat characters given to us by cinema.

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