Man on the Moon (1999)

3 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s often said that humor is subjective—what one finds funny, another finds offensive and/or unforgivably stupid. The late entertainer Andy Kaufman knew this and kept alienating his audience in order to keep around the only people that understood his humor, as few as they may seem. He never liked to do things conventionally; he just liked to put on a show his own way. While some people would declare him a comic genius, others would refer to him as a crazed fool. “Man on the Moon,” the Andy Kaufman biopic created by director Milos Forman (“Amadeus”) and screenwriters Scott Alexander & Larry Kareszewski (“Ed Wood,” the Forman-directed “The People vs. Larry Flint”), is a wonderful film that illustrates the work of both the genius and the fool.

What aids the film throughout is not only the expert direction by Forman or the detailed script by Alexander & Kareszewski, but it’s the leading performance from Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman that keeps it alive. From beginning to end, Carrey disappears into the role of the late Kaufman and gives a great sense of what the man must have gone through in life. We may not always know what he was thinking, as we are kept out of the loop during much of Kaufman’s extreme antics. But that works in the film’s favor, as we’re supposed to be left wondering what Kaufman is thinking. What’s important is Carrey has some idea as to what he’s thinking for the duration of the film.

For those who don’t know, Andy Kaufman became popular for a comedic character he portrayed in the TV series “Taxi”: a foreign oddball named Latka Gravas. He was also known for doing unpredictable things, such as reading the entirety of “The Great Gatsby” at a college presentation, wrestling women in front of live audiences (which led to a feud with wrestler Jerry Lawler for making a mockery out of wrestling), and other antics that ticked many people off. His practical jokes got to the point where, when it seemed he was dying of lung cancer, hardly anyone believed it when he was sick or even after he had died. (You could say the film even argues at the end that Kaufman is still alive.) His untimely death in 1984 caused people to think back to his career and the insane performances he created. Back in his heyday, his popularity was minimal; nowadays, he’s hailed as a comedic master.

“Man on the Moon” is a slightly fictional biopic that chronicles the highlights of Andy Kaufman’s career. It begins with one of the most innovative prologues I’ve ever seen in any biopic, in which Carrey as Kaufman, using his Latka imitation, berates the movie before it even begins and even starts rolling the end credits after having cut out the entire film, which he describes as “full of baloney.” (But it turns out to be a prank to get rid of audience members who wouldn’t understand Kaufman.) Many biopics don’t have the courage to acknowledge that they made up a lot of material for dramatic purposes; this one just flat-out opens by declaring it isn’t to be taken too seriously.

As the movie continues, we see Kaufman performing on-stage at local bars, meeting agent George Shapiro (Danny DeVito…strangely not reprising his role as Danny DeVito who co-starred with the actual Andy Kaufman in “Taxi” in real life), landing guest appearances on “Saturday Night Live,” getting a contract for “Taxi,” crafting a TV special that ABC executives turn down for being too different, and more. Oh, and there’s also Kaufman’s arch-nemesis: a loud, crass lounge singer named Tony Clifton. The less I say about him, the better…

The more we see of Kaufman’s performance on-stage with the public and off-stage with Shaprio, his writing partner (Paul Giamatti), and his lover (Courtney Love), the less we know about who Kaufman truly is. The best we can gather is that he’s a man who just wants to entertain people in his own ways, and it’s in the quieter moments of the film that we can figure that out, making the more outrageous moments even more telling. (I’ve seen this film about five times now, and I learn more from this character each time.)

Jim Carrey is this movie. He has the look and feel of Andy Kaufman, eerily so that I hardly see the actor in the performance. Carrey does tremendous work here, probably the best performance he’s ever given in a film. (Side-note: watch the Netflix documentary “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond,” which features never-before-seen behind-the-scenes footage about the making of “Man on the Moon.” It shows how deeply Carrey wanted to inhabit the character he was playing. It’s almost psychopathic, the way he attempted method acting here.)

“Man on the Moon” has some pacing issues, particularly toward the final act which feels somewhat rushed, which is unfortunate as we should be feeling more for Kaufman’s plight after being diagnosed with terminal cancer and people wondering if it’s yet another performance art. But it makes up for that with a clever ending and a reveal that I won’t dare give away here. Overall, “Man on the Moon” is a fun (but also deep) film about an entertainer that wanted to entertain, no matter who was part of his audience.

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