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Western Animation / Mary and Max

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"God gave us relatives... Thank god we can choose our friends"
Ethel Mumford (quote at the end of the film)

Mary and Max is a 2009 Australian clay-animated Black Comedy-Drama written and directed by Adam Elliot, the Oscar winning director of the short film Harvie Krumpet.

Set in the 1970-90s, Mary and Max tells the story of a friendship between two unlikely pen pals: Mary Daisy Dinkle (Bethany Whitmore as young Mary, Toni Collette as older Mary), a lonely 8-year-old girl living in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, and Max Jerry Horowitz (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a 44-year old man with Asperger Syndrome living in New York City. The movie follows the story of their life and friendship over the course of Mary's childhood and adulthood. What appears to start out as a solely blackly humourous story soon turns into something quite dark and often very depressing, dealing with many bleak topics: parental neglect, insecurity, bullying, and even suicide.


  • Abhorrent Admirer: Marjorie Butterworth to Max. Max assumes the distress she causes him is because he doesn't understand love or courtship; he doesn't appear to grasp that he's actually being sexually harrassed.
  • Abusive Parents: Mary's are mostly neglectful and preoccupied, though her mother also calls her fat and ugly, telling her that she's "growing up to be a heifer". She even told her at one point "she was an accident". In a subversion, outside of those things, they do seem to love her.
  • Accidental Suicide: Vera, who is depressed about her husband's death, grabs what she thinks is some Sherry wine. It is actually embalming fluid, and she dies shortly afterwards.
  • The Alcoholic: Mary's mother, who is in denial about it.
    • Mary herself seems to at one point become a alcoholic or at the least a borderline one.
  • Angrish: Max devolves into this after receiving Mary's book - he doesn't even bother with coherent sentences in the first draft of his letter, instead opting to simply list the emotions he was feeling as he felt them.
  • Artistic License – History: Max is diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome in 1980 (based on the fact that he writes Mary four years after the film's beginning in 1976 and informs her of his recent diagnosis). While AS was known about back then, it didn't become a distinct diagnosis until 1992, so it's highly unlikely that Max would have been diagnosed.
  • Babies Ever After: In the end, Mary has a baby while visiting Max in New York. Unaware that Max died earlier in the morning.
  • Berserk Button:
  • Be Yourself: Probably the biggest moral in the movie.
  • Big Applesauce: Where Max lives.
  • Big Eater: Max. When he wins the New York Lottery, he uses some of his money to buy a lifetime supply of chocolate.
  • Birth-Death Juxtaposition: Mary and her baby arrive to visit Max just after he died.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Max forgives Mary and she comes to visit him for the first time with her newborn baby... only to find that he passed away, albeit peacefully, on the very morning that she arrives. And then Mary looks up to see that Max has laminated all of her letters and attached them to the ceiling in his home.
  • Black Comedy: Used to either to add levity to an otherwise dark film or to reinforce the mood.
    • Perhaps the most extreme one was in an (spoofed) deleted scene on the DVD, where the ending has Mary finding Max's body on the couch as in the real ending — except this time, his pets are tearing it apart, as per her thoughts during Max's breakdown.
    • Max has named his snails after famous scientists. The snail with a cracked shell (or the disabled one) is named Hawking.
    • The other gag was after Len had saved the day — instead of crossing the street and narrowly avoiding the car, it instead hits and flings him offscreen.
    • The air conditioner falling on the mime.
    • Every time the narrator gets the chance to introduce a foreign concept to Max, he compares it to Max's weight.
  • Blind Without 'Em: Ivy, Max's neighbor. Then again, from what's implied, she can't see with them either.
  • Brainy Brunette: Mary fits the trope well, although her hair is closer to black.
  • Book Ends: Max stargazes near the start and end of the film, both times after having sent a letter off to Mary.
  • Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: Max unintentionally does this in his letters.
    Max: Do you have a pet kangaroo? When I was born, my father left my mother and me on a kibbutz. She shot herself with my uncle's gun when I was 6. Do you like chocolate hot dogs?
  • Brutal Honesty: Max, occasionally, as a symptom of his Asperger's.
    Max: I cannot understand how being honest can be... improper? Maybe this is why I don't have any friends.
  • Cannot Tell a Joke: Max. It's partially because of his autism
  • Chekhov's Gunman:
    • Damien's pen pal from New Zealand, who he ends up leaving Mary for.
    • Mary's disabled neighbour, who overcomes his agoraphobia just in time to save her from killing herself.
  • Children Are Innocent: Mostly averted, as Mary's mother "borrows" things from the store, but Mary realizes that something about it is off.
  • Crazy Enough to Work: Max's suggestion that Mary tell a bully that her birthmark is made of chocolate, which means she'd be in charge of chocolate when she got to heaven. This made the bully cry.
  • Delayed Diagnosis: Max is diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome as an adult in his 40's.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: Scenes that follow Max in New York City are black and white while scenes that follow Mary in Australia are sepia-tone, with both having an occasional Splash of Color. Interestingly, once Mary comes to visit Max, she's still sepia-toned when everything around her is black and white, and their exchanged gifts retain their origin's coloration.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Max cuts off contact with Mary after the latter publishes a book about Asperger's syndrome with him as the subject, primarily because she'd expressed a desire to cure it when he'd explicitly stated in one of his letters that he saw nothing that needed "fixing". Mary becomes incredibly depressed and then Damien leaves her for his pen-pal friend. Later, we see Mary trying to hang herself.
  • Disappeared Dad: Max's father, who left his wife and son on a kibbutz, and is otherwise never mentioned again.
  • Ditzy Genius: Max, to a T. He's capable of speed-reading two pages at once, has an amateur but clearly sophisticated understanding of mathematics and physics, and is generally a very skilled autodidact. However, because of his poor social skills and other quirks, people (especially Dr. Bernard Hazelhof) tend to assume he's stupid. This includes the use of an *extremely* unflattering word in a local newspaper article about his institutionalization. Most clearly demonstrated when Mary asks him for advice about love. Max wishes she'd asked about chaos theory instead.
  • Doctor Jerk: Played with for Doctor Bernard Hazelhof: Max's psychologist. He seems to insult Max a few times, over his low intelligence, and calls his dreams of owning the Nobblets and chocolate stupid. However, he does help Max through his problems and encourages his friendship with Mary, saying that it is beneficial to him. And after Max feels betrayed, he helps to convince him that no-one is perfect, and friends can sometimes say bad things or stuff out of ignorance, but you should forgive them if you really are their friend. He also tries to promote a healthier lifestyle to Max.
  • Driven to Suicide:
    • Mary. Almost. She would have succeeded had Len not knocked on the door at the very last possible second.
    • Max's mother would be a straighter example, since she is said to have shot herself when Max was six years old.
    • Possibly Mary's mother, it's unclear whether she realized that bottle was embalming fluid rather than sherry.
  • Electroconvulsive Therapy Is Torture: One scene shows Max, who has Asperger's Syndrome in the 1980s, at a mental institution receiving some clearly painful electroshock therapy.
  • Everyone Has Standards: Vera is a neglectful drunk, but her horror upon seeing a 44-year-old man write to her 8-year-old daughter, regardless that Max meant no malicious intent, is very understandable.
  • Everyone Hates Mimes: Except for someone with a mental disorder, apparently.
  • Eyes Always Shut: Ivy, on account of her blindness. Except for when Max gave her the rest of his lottery winnings, which elicited an Eye Pop.
  • Finger in the Mail: Parodied. It's a key from Max's typewriter.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • The narrator explains that Max would iron, laminate, then store all of Mary's letters in a special place, which is revealed at the end of the movie - Max's gaze upward while ironing hints toward where he put her letters, along with the placement of his Life Goals list earlier in the movie.
    • The subject of Damian's sexuality is foreshadowed as well — he wanted to be in theater, he made Mary's wedding dress, they honeymooned at Mykonos, and the aforementioned ambiguous attitude towards his and Mary's consummating their marriage.
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: When Ivy dies, a tombstone nearby has the director's name on it.
  • Friendship Trinket: One of Mary's first gifts to Max was a little red pom-pom she'd made, which he puts on top of his yarmulke for the rest of the film except for when he and Mary have their falling out when she graduates from college.
  • Go Out with a Smile: Max is found dead staring at the ceiling filled with the letters Mary sent to him, with a content smile in his face.
  • Grave Humor: On the headstone for Mary's grandfather; "Born in a barn in the hills of Baronia/ lived a full life, then died of pneumonia." Later, similarly appropriate quips are written on those of her parents.
  • Happier Times Montage: One plays in the background as Mary prepares to commit suicide.
  • Heroic BSoD: Max and Mary each have one.
  • Idea Bulb: Both characters get this when they come up with an idea to help the other out.
  • I Just Want to Have Friends: Both of the main characters.
  • Imaginary Friend: Max has one, "Mr. Ravioli", who quietly sits in the corner reading books since Max's psychologist said it wasn't healthy. His eventual departure from Max's apartment is what kickstarts his first reconciliation with Mary.
  • Imagine Spot: Mary has several, such as a baby struggling to get out of a cola can and pondering if Max hasn't written her back in a while because he was killed by his pets.
  • Inherently Funny Words: Max asks Mary what she thinks of the word "Kumquat" before detailing his other favorites.
    Max: My top-five are "ointment," "bumblebee," "Vladivostok," "banana," and "testicle."
  • Innocently Insensitive:
    • Max apparently has a tendency to unintentionally offend others due to his Asperger's.
    • Mary accidentally pisses off Max when she tries to "cure" his Asperger's Syndrome.
  • Insistent Terminology: Max tends to lapse into this when addressing people (e.g. Mary Daisy Dinkle, Doctor Bernard Hazelhof), though only refers to himself by his full name once. Truth in Television: People with Asperger's Syndrome tend to state things using the most precise terms possible, out of fear that they won't communicate their point properly otherwise.
  • The Insomniac: Max becomes this whenever his life is thrown into disarray.
  • Intergenerational Friendship: The very premise of the film is about a young girl becoming pen pals with a 44-year-old man.
  • Interrupted Suicide: Mary nearly commits suicide, but is stopped by Len.
  • It's All Junk: After her Despair Event Horizon, Mary has her book pulped before publication, even though it would have made her a famous psychologist.
  • Lady Drunk: Mary's mother Vera enjoys "tasting" the cooking sherry.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Mary's years of kindness towards Len, her disabled neighbor with a fear of going outside, pays off just in time. Len makes sure Mary's package from Max gets to her by actually going outside at her door, just like how she would get him his mail as a kid. This act alone stops Mary from committing suicide, killing both herself and her unborn child.
  • Literal-Minded: Max. He even lampshades this trait of his.
  • Malaproper: Mary, to humorous effect — though only when she's a child. She knows her neighbor is afraid of the outdoors, but thinks it's called "homophobia".
  • Mama Bear: For as much of a drunken lout as she is, Mary's mother does show some parental instinct by not wanting her daughter to be receiving mail from a strange grown man from the other side of the world. Max was obviously no threat to Mary, but you can't really blame her mom for reacting the way she did when she saw Max's first letter and threw it in the trash.
  • Manchild: Max somewhat as he can have a rather childish view of the world (for instance, he passed his time as a garbage collector by pretending to be a robot). Justified though in that not only does he have to deal with having a mental disability but he's had to pretty much take care of himself since he was six years old.
  • Missed Him by That Much: Max passes away the very morning before Mary was finally about to meet him.
  • Mistaken for Insane: Max pretends to be a robot while he's picking up trash. A nearby woman clearly assumes he is crazy and calls 911.
  • Mood Whiplash: It bounces back and forth between sad, upbeat, funny and disturbing throughout the entire movie.
  • Nervous Wreck: Max becomes one anytime his life is "disrupted". This meant that Mary's first letter resulted in him rocking in a corner before staring out the window in thought for 18 hours, and her letter asking him about sex sent him to a mental ward for almost a year.
  • "No. Just… No" Reaction: Vera's response to seeing a letter from a 44-year-old man addressed to her daughter.
  • No Social Skills: Both of the title characters aren't very socially competent, but Max especially.
  • Non-Standard Character Design: In contrast to the other characters' Gonk-ish, bug-eyed looks, Mary has a notably "cuter" appearance with Black Bead Eyes.
  • Oblivious to Love: Max. It's partially because of his Aspergers but also because he has zero interest in it in general.
  • Odd Friendship: The plot of the whole movie.
  • One-Woman Wail: When Vera finds Max's first letter.
  • Only Friend: Mary for Max.
    Max: You are my best friend. You are my only friend.
  • Parental Abandonment: Max's folks. His father left him and his mother when he was four and his mother shot herself when he was six.
  • Parental Neglect: Mary' parents are guilty of this, with her father spending his homelife by stuffing dead birds and her mother by "tasting tea" (a.k.a. drinking sherry).
  • Pen Pals: Mary discovers Max' name in a phone book and decides to write to him, leading to a friendship through correspondence that endures for several decades.
  • Plumber's Crack: Max sports one when sitting down at the typewriter.
  • Punny Name: Many of the minor characters, eg. Max's dentist.
  • Rage Breaking Point: Max explodes when he sees a homeless person littering after picking up cigarette butts throughout the film (his personal Berserk Button).
  • Ready for Lovemaking: Mary does this after marrying Damien. His ambivalent reaction is the first clue that he's not exactly straight.
  • Real Is Brown: For the scenes in Australia.
  • Red Scare: Max lost his job in the Army because he had been a Communist at one point.
  • Replacement Goldfish: Literally. Several, in fact. Moments after we are introduced to Henry the Eighth, we are informed that there have been seven Henrys before him. We see the demise of future Henrys throughout the film.
  • Rhythm Typewriter: Max on his typewriter.
  • Ripped from the Phone Book: How Mary got Max's address; she just picked a random name from the listings at the post office.
  • Running Gag:
    • Every so often, one of the Henrys gets flushed (or blended, or flops out the window, or into a toaster).
    • And whenever Len makes an attempt to conquer his agoraphobia, something happens that makes it entirely justified.
  • Same Clothes, Different Year: Max's wardrobe is a justified case, as he has 8 identical vinyl tracksuits.
  • Shout-Out:
    • One to A Charlie Brown Christmas (the doctor is "in").
    • Another to Oliver Sacks; Mary is seen reading his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.
    • Another to Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's.
    • At one point, Max wears a shirt saying "Aspies for Freedom", which is the name of a real Asperger's rights organization.
    • A boy on the bus-stop bench is wearing a "Save Ferris" t-shirt.
    • The fast, musical typewriting scene echoes Jerry Lewis in Who's Minding the Store?.
    • The Nobblets seem to be a parody of The Smurfs
  • Skewed Priorities: Played for Laughs during Max's letter post-breakdown.
    Max: P.P.S. — Not much has happened since I last wrote, except for my manslaughter charges, lotto win, and Ivy's death.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance:
    • Que Sera Sera, covered by Portland based Pink Martini. You will never hear the song in the same way.
    • "A Swingin' Safari", a jaunty instrumental tune by Bert Kaempfert plays during the credits after a rather somber Bittersweet Ending where Max is found dead by Mary when she finally visits him.
  • Spinning Paper
  • Stealth Pun: As young Mary watches the Noblets, she curls up with Ethel, a rooster. Or cock.
  • Strongly Worded Letter: Writing them is a pastime of Max's.
  • Strong Family Resemblance: Mary's baby has Damian's ears and Mary's birthmark.
  • Super Fly Reflexes: Max has them, surprisingly, which he then puts into a glass bottle labelled "Henry's Flies".
  • Theme Naming: Max has 3 snails named after famous scientists — Einstein, Edison, and one with a cracked shell named Hawking.
  • There Is No Kill Like Overkill: Mary tries to commit suicide by swallowing pills and hanging herself at the same time.
  • Timeshifted Actor: Bethany Whitmore plays Mary as a child. Toni Collette plays her as an adult.
  • Time Skip: Takes place after Max and Mary first rekindle their friendship.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Lots of unwise decisions get made, but none worse than that of the mime. If he had time to dig out an umbrella and open it tremblingly, he could've used that time to get out of the way.
  • Trademark Favorite Food: Chocolate, for both of them. Then (after Mary suggests it) Sweetened Condensed Milk straight from the can is added to Max's favorites. Chocolate hotdogs (a candy-bar in a hot-dog bun) is definitively Max's, though.
  • The Unsmile: Max's attempt to display "happiness" freaks out the hobo in front of his building though partially because Max had recently attacked him for littering.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The only thing true part of this film is the 20+ year friendship between an autistic man and an Australian; based on Adam Elliots actual relationship with his friend. Everything else is made up.
  • Warts and All: Coupled with Be Yourself as the main message of the movie, and name-dropped a couple of times by Max (and by extension, Dr. Bernard Hazlehof).
  • Whale Egg: When Mary asks Max how babies are made, he says his mother told him that babies hatch from eggs layed by a rabbi.
  • Yiddish as a Second Language: "Gey gezunterheyt" ("Go with good health") is Max's send-off to his letters.