4 Stars out of 4
“There’s no way to describe what I do. It’s just me.” – Andy Kaufman
But who is “me”? Who was Andy Kaufman? In strict terms he was an American entertainer who amused vast crowds without ever telling a joke. He was the joke. A walking act, a goofy enigma, and never wanting his crowd to easily enjoy themselves. Andy Kaufman is an ambiguous fascination. Whether you love him or not, you have to appreciate him for stripping the conventions of comedy to the point that no one knew exactly what they were laughing at – or with.
With Miloš Forman’s Man On the Moon, the “biopic” of Andy Kaufman, it is so important to understand the opening. It is not only unanticipatedly clever but crucial in appreciating the film’s vision. Andy (Jim Carrey) stares at the screen, awkwardly twitching his eyes, and saying with a lisp: “all the most important things in my life are changed around and mixed up for dramatic purposes.” What this tells us is that Man On the Moon is not Forman’s but Kaufman’s stubborn vision.
Thus the film is a mess with a purpose. Certain events lack build up or even introduction and characters change without any suggestions why. Frustrating? Only if that was by accident. What Forman does is accede to a more profound but unstable story that yields to episodic structure not linearity. This is not about emotions (though it has its moments), payoffs or arcs. These are highlights of an extraordinary yet confounding life. Man On the Moon does not tell us who Andy Kaufman was. It explains his influence and how his personality once emanated over his audience. That is more fascinating.
A Kaufman biography is not a story meant to be played straight. Forman takes a big stride by selecting Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman. Why? This is a risk because most of Carrey’s previous films – like Liar Liar, The Cable Guy, and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective – are about his frantic personality. We normally don’t see Jim Carrey movies for his characters but for the live wire playing them. Carrey is now forced to embody multiple personalities, none of which concede to his own. Kaufman is not an expert in physical comedy. He’s a dramatist. He is a man of several looks and gestures, all of which do not adhere to the Carrey ego.
Yet Carrey is perfect as Kaufman. The nuances are eerily precise, making me think that the Kaufman unfathomable soul is back and just as clever. Unlike the natural comedic talents of Carrey, Kaufman doesn’t know humour. He does not come on the stage to talk foolishly to his audience. He confronts them. While just standing there. There’s even a moment in the film when Kaufman reads F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby – the whole friggin’ thing – to his audience, putting them to sleep or out the door. Though some do stay behind.
The biopic is not simply a rags-to-riches story. It shows one sequence from Kaufman’s childhood, that – for me – was unneeded. But after that, Man On the Moon is consistently funny, endlessly entertaining, and at its best dramatic.
Kaufman’s agent, George Shapiro (Danny DeVito) is a typical mind fit for show business. But Kaufman is not on the quest for fame and making people giggle till they cry. Though, ironically, he succeeds to do so. Kaufman drives George nuts because Kaufman is not like everybody else. It’s an opposites attract thing.
Other characters arrive. Paul Giamatti is Kaufman’s partner and double Bob and Courtney Love is Kaufman’s girlfriend Lynne. There are some cameos from SNL creator Lorne Michaels, David Letterman, and the infamous wrestler Jerry Lawler. All these people had a role in Kaufman’s actual life, and them reappearing gives the film a charming familiarity and comedic edge.
Kaufman is a jumble of personalities. He is a dish boy at a restaurant, “himself”, and Tony Clifton. Clifton is a lounge singer who finds his fame in ridiculing and humiliating his audience. He is a bastard, a bawdy self-centred celebrity who is on the edge of his life’s cliff. Some think Kaufman is Clifton but they are not one-hundred percent sure. That’s the beauty of it.
Kaufman’s act soon no longer is on the stage but his life entirely. He is always performing and often pulling pranks. If anything that is his one joke: “gotcha” moments. He likes to induce his audience in great fear, happiness, or pathos. And then laugh at them after. He even pretends to be sexist to piss a lot of ladies off. Well, we always know that to survive in show business you have to get people angry.
Before coming in to Man On the Moon I knew nothing about Andy Kaufman. Absolutely nothing. Usually I do a bit of research prior to viewing such films but here I coincidentally did not. I do not regret it. I thus felt more tortured, perplexed but equally riveted by Forman never directly telling me who the character of focus was. Most biopics, even the great ones, love universality and trying to tack on self-important messages. Not with Forman. Like his Amadeus, Forman believes in removing the conventions of famous icons and making them either irritating or completely enigmatic. That’s the fun of it all.
We watch Kaufman with a steady detachment. We are his audience. It is not important to invest in his character because we do not know what that character exactly is. Also, it is crucial not to fall for him emotionally because he often plays tricks and does not really feel happy or sad, though he may be trying to convince us so. He is the guy with the spotlight around his head and no one is aiming it. Kaufman is off in the dark but the joy of it all is sitting there wondering if that spotlight will ever move. Will Kaufman ever reveal himself?
The fate of Kaufman is still debated. He had a bout with cancer but no one knew whether to believe it or not. It was very possible he could have crossed the line and faked it. So his life, when it was real or fake, was all an act. No one could be certain about Kaufman and that is why people thought he was an immense failure as a comedian but a superb magician.
I loved this movie. It enchanted me. Forman gives me the most accurate characterization of an inscrutable entertainer. He leaves us wondering more and more, satisfied but scratching our heads. I gasped when finding out this film had barely sixty percent on Rotten Tomatoes. But that’s just as well. No one ever revered Kaufman. He split your feelings for him in two. Liking his act, hating his lack of jokes. Some may criticize the film for being too sloppy and unfocused. Precisely the point, my friends. As Kaufman explains to us at the beginning of the film: “I decided to cut out all of the baloney.”