Man on the Moon (1999)

D: Milos Forman
S: Jim Carrey, Danny De Vito

Curiously dispiriting biopic of comedic performance artist Andy Kaufman from the writing and directing team responsible for The People vs. Larry Flynt. Just as in this previous project, the biographical details of a real individual's life are here turned to larger questions, in this case a study of comedy itself and its relationship with the human spirit. The most frequently effective comedy is rooted in society, because comedy is centrally concerned with breaking rules. Usually, stable social systems (political, class, sexual) get a going over from the anarchic presence of the comedian (or the comic plot) who (or which) breaks the rules and throws the system into disarray. In this case we are presented with the anarchic spirit of Andy Kaufman, whose unique style of stand-up performance defied conventional definitions of comedy, yet was uproariously funny. This eventually landed him on television, providing him with a national (and international) platform and bringing him into conflict with the forces of industrial capitalism, corporate manoeuvring, and the fickle television audience. His increasingly erratic behaviour throughout the subsequent years won him as many enemies as admirers, and as his performances became more and more surreal, it became difficult to tell where the boundaries were and just what rules, if any, were being broken. Yet whither Andy Kaufman? Where was his centre? Was he really a force of pure anarchic energy capable of making the most mundane moments of our lives magical? Or was he insane? Is there a difference?

In the hands of director Milos Forman and scriptwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, what should have been an inspirational story of a truly creative personality has become an exhausting and depressing statement that everything in life is illusory and all that matters is one's perspective. This is not an uncommon theme in recent motion pictures, a symptom of millennial angst which has so far manifested itself in postmodern, messianic, and apocalyptic fantasies such as The Matrix and The Truman Show. However, filtered through the progressively darkening story of Andy Kaufman, it becomes a sad, draining odyssey to a foregone conclusion, capped by the scene where Kaufman undergoes a 'miracle' cancer cure, discovers it to be fake, and laughs long and hard. Somehow, it's a horrible moment, deep with irony, and the only scene in which Jim Carrey registers a believable emotion. It strikes home, and the film is effective in showing that, if nothing else, Kaufman is a symbol of our futile desire to circumvent our own limitations. It proves that only man's inner life provides him with the armour and weaponry to transcend, and whether it is by religion or surrealist comedy, it is the life of the mind which matters most. The film invites this kind of cerebral analysis, and indeed cannot be viewed without it. As a biopic it is less than thorough, as drama it is fragmented, and as comedy it is as acquired a taste as Kaufman himself, only moreso because this is not Kaufman, but Jim Carrey playing Kaufman.

Performance is a central theme of the film. It is also its biggest problem. The confusion about where Kaufman drew the lines between person and personae is exemplified in the numerous pranks, stunts, and gags which made up most of his professional career. These are re-created in the film, making it a series of set pieces rather than a tightly-constructed dramatic narrative. This, in itself, is not so much a flaw as a feature, and allows the film to creep into the realms of surrealism (also a feature of so many recent films from American Beauty and Being John Malkovich to Fight Club and Rushmore). This is entirely appropriate given Kaufman's humour, which was itself surreal to the extent that it relied on sometimes unfathomable, certainly irrational connections between seemingly unconnected things. Yet the result is a distance between the audience and the film reminiscent of the European 'art house' cinema of the 1970s which certainly once informed Forman's work at least on some level (though he was arguably never quite the maverick that many of his European contemporaries were). It is studied, cerebral, and 'arty' in the worst sense of the word, and offers few joys for the viewer, let alone inspiration.

Worse yet, Jim Carrey, who must have seemed the ideal choice to play Kaufman, is so visibly involved in creating a thespian interpretation suited to this endeavour that he is never believable. Supporting performances from producer Danny DeVito as agent George Shapiro (one of the executive producers of the film itself) and Paul Giamatti as Kaufman's longtime collaborator Bob Zmuda (co-executive producer) are better, and there are interesting turns from the original cast of Taxi and a variety of others playing themselves (though watching DeVito play Shapiro is a real head-scratcher from the point of view of in-jokey postmodernism). Courtney Love (so good in The People vs. Larry Flynt) has a brief, reasonably effective role as Kaufman's final girlfriend. But the movie turns on Carrey, who tries hard once again to escape the mantle of 'mere' comedy. This time he is smart enough to have chosen a vehicle which allows him to be funny (and he sometimes is, but only as a prop recreating gags which were funny in themselves) as well as dramatic. Yet, as with Robin Williams and Steve Martin, he proves yet again that repressing comic flair does not always result in better acting. It instead makes the audience uncomfortably aware of the performer's limitations.

Not everyone will agree, of course, and the film is interesting. It has many talking points, and may well spark enough interest in Kaufman himself to have film and TV buffs digging up some archive footage. This would ultimately prove to be a more worthwhile homage to his talent. As a thematic extrapolation of ideas about the schism between funny ha ha and funny peculiar, it has some points to make, but they are made ad nauseum and at too great a length. As a movie to sit down and view or watch with friends, it is surprisingly unrewarding. It probably will find a fan base though, and may well develop a following of its own in time. Yet it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, like comedy itself, whether or not you will enjoy it comes down to personal taste. If you think you might be interested, you probably will be, but what you feel at the end comes down to what you expect it to be. It's certainly not Lenny, and Jim Carrey is not Dustin Hoffman, but you knew that.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.