Here is an intriguing proposition: a filmed encounter between scatterbrained film director Michel Gondry and the distinguished linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky. With its subtitle "an animated conversation", you know that Gondry won't be restricting himself to the traditional head-shot interview format, and that proves to be the case: much of Chomsky's musing is illustrated with squiggly, hand-drawn graphics that do a nice job at elucidating some of the more rarified concepts that are aired. Moreover, Gondry occasionally interjects with amusing voiceovers: apologising for his poor English, his difficulties with the animation, and the like.
The conversation itself sticks largely to Chomsky's work in linguistics and philosophy – we don't get Chomsky-the-fashionable-political-activist, but rather we dip a toe in his real achievements in academia. The title, it turns out, refers to a conundrum Chomsky poses in his 1957 book Syntactic Structures: how transforming a complex sentence ("The man who is tall is happy") into a question is an operation of instinctive and non-logical grammar. At least, that's how Chomsky patiently explains it to Gondry, whose puppy-dog enthusiasm transmits itself from the screen in bright early-MTV colours.
Gondry makes some headway in burrowing behind Chomsky's mild academic facade: by asking him about his early life, what he does for entertainment, and about his recently deceased wife, we get a sudden glimpse of Chomsky-the-human-being (no doubt entirely trivial ones, if you're a signed-up Chomskyite). But little asides – such as hearing him talk about his parents' interest in cultural Zionism, or his regular jail time when his kids were growing up, or just the fact he and his wife liked to be alone with each other – create an unexpectedly rounded portrait.
But the bulk of the film is devoted to giving Chomsky space to explain his theories to a non-academic audience. It might be possible to see Gondry's broken-English stumblings and random-association images as complementing Chomsky's descriptions of generative grammar, but I'm not sure this is entirely the case; in the nicest possible way, this is teacher-and-pupil stuff. You can only regret that Gondry missed the chance to repeat Woody Allen's legendary philosophy class gag – "I cheated on my metaphysics final. I looked within the soul of the boy sitting next to me". I wonder what Chomsky would have made of that?