Man on the MoonReviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 12/26/06 14:24:51
Andy Kaufman has been dead for 22 years, and people are still waiting for him to come back. In a way, of course, he never left, and in "Man on the Moon" he borrows Jim Carrey's body for a while.Carrey is among the dozens of comedians who worship Andy as a sort of found object of comedic genius, a guru of transgression -- Kaufman was always more of a comedian's comedian than an audience-pleaser. Here, after all, was a man who quite intentionally bombed on stage; sometimes he would snatch victory from the jaws of defeat -- taking a hard left into some funny bit of business that let the audience know he was "doing" a comedian bombing -- and sometimes he would go down in flames. Kaufman's style was as layered as an onion: You laughed (in disbelief, more often than not) at the surface of what he was doing; you laughed at the idea of someone actually doing this; you laughed at yourself for sitting there watching it; finally, you laughed at, and with, Kaufman for having the balls to treat the stage as his ongoing lab experiment.
The genius of Man on the Moon is that it's an onion inside an onion. How do you make a biopic about someone who had no "personal life" -- a man to whom one character says, "There isn't a real you"? Answer: You don't. Man on the Moon is an anti-biopic, fully befitting Kaufman's brand of anti-comedy. Some will inevitably call it merely a greatest-hits collection: Here's Andy doing Mighty Mouse, here's Andy as Latka, here's Andy's bleating lounge-singer alter ego Tony Clifton, here's Andy wrestling women, here's Andy feuding with Jerry Lawler, here's Andy dying. And on some level, that's exactly what it is: Why are we sitting here watching a talented, original comedian knock himself out impersonating another? We know all this greatest-hits stuff, we've seen it dozens of times on Comedy Central; we're here to learn things we didn't know. But the movie, like Kaufman, gives you no more or less than what it wants to give you. Man on the Moon can be seen, in part, as Andy's final postmodern triumph: At the end of two hours, we don't really "know" him any better than we did before. Of course, most of the people who knew him for years could say the same thing. He was, and is, unknowable; that was part of his mystique and his style.
Yes, the movie slips us an insight here and there. Example: Kaufman's whole women-wrestling thing, it turns out, was a fetish; he did it primarily because it turned him on, and he wound up in bed with a lot of his opponents after the show. (His pop-eyed charisma was such that the women somehow agreed to sleep with him even after he publicly defeated and humiliated them.) But factoids like this are available in two biographies published about Kaufman: Bill Zehme's Lost in the Funhouse, and Andy Kaufman Revealed by Kaufman's best friend and comedy partner Bob Zmuda (played in the film by Paul Giamatti). What Man on the Moon shows you, illustrating these factoids, is that Kaufman's odd pleasures were inseparable from his act. Whatever excited him, he would find some way to include in his performance, whether or not it fit neatly or even comedically. Self-indulgence often kills art; Kaufman transformed self-indulgence into art.
After a clever opening that recalls the beginning of The Andy Kaufman Special (aka Andy's Funhouse, Kaufman's long-lost TV special unearthed on TV Land), the movie skims briskly across Kaufman's life, a rise-and-fall epic telescoped into two hours. If Man on the Moon has a flaw, it's that it's too concise: An entire interesting movie could be made about Kaufman's grudging six-year tour of duty on Taxi (where he was resented and misunderstood by most of the cast), or about his wrestling period, which even his steadfast fans and admiring comedian peers lost patience with (the video I'm from Hollywood, which chronicles Kaufman's women-wrestling and flamboyantly hostile feud with Memphis wrestling king Jerry Lawler, is essential viewing).
Some of the movie depends on what you bring to it. When Kaufman goes on the first show of Saturday Night Live with his Mighty Mouse act, he stands around for a while onstage in nervous silence, with live cameras rolling, while a frantic techie whispers in Lorne Michaels' ear, "This is dead air." Michaels (one of several real-life Kaufman acquaintances failing to look years younger playing themselves here) just nods and says nothing. It helps to know that the first SNL show was in grave danger of going over 90 minutes, and that there was tremendous pressure on Michaels to cut Kaufman's bit. Michaels fought tooth and nail to keep Andy in the show. The scene in the movie is a subtle foreshortening of all this: no cliched reply from Michaels along the lines of "Just watch this guy, trust me," just a nod as if to say "I know. It's dead air. That's the act." This scene also stands in for all the other Kaufman bits on SNL, where the Not Ready for Prime Time Players warily respected him as a talented outsider but found him a bit weird and unapproachable (one vehement exception was John Belushi, who not only loved Andy's act but hung out with him whenever he did the show, watching wrestling in his dressing room).
Man on the Moon represents the final film in an oddball trilogy by screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who seem to have devoted themselves to chronicling the lives of holy fools of entertainment -- they also wrote Ed Wood (directed by Tim Burton) and The People Vs. Larry Flynt (directed by Milos Forman, who also does the honors here). I'm not as big a fan of those other two films as some people are. They each have rich and unusual moments you won't see in any other movie, and they boast terrific performances by eclectic casts, but I didn't feel the movies squared with what we know about Ed Wood or Larry Flynt. In both cases, the writers indulged in well-meaning revisionism, sanding down the rough edges of these men and elevating their dubious achievements so that Wood and Flynt seemed like misunderstood geniuses -- of film, of First Amendment rights. Actually, I think those men were understood perfectly well as the opportunists and hustlers (no pun intended) they were, so I didn't buy the writers' soft-focus canonization.
However, Andy Kaufman's entire act was based on being misunderstood, so the writers do a much better job with him, and they don't pretend his performances somehow contributed to the greater good. Kaufman could be an exasperating prick, and the movie acknowledges that: However much you enjoy watching Andy's pranks and antics, you wouldn't want to be on the set of Taxi on an eleven-hour workday and have to deal with Tony Clifton. Alexander and Karaszewski also don't pretend to "know" Kaufman, any more than Bob Zmuda or Andy's girlfriend Lynne Margulies (Courtney Love, giving her second funky and engaging performance for Milos Forman despite having less to do this time). There's none of the sanctimony here that often marred Forman's People Vs. Larry Flynt, in which you were either for Larry or for the asshole prudes who tried to bring him down -- the movie offered no middle ground. The First Amendment isn't at stake here, just a career flaming out. And Forman and the writers present Kaufman's career failure as his perverse victory.
Kaufman's hijinks, of course, drive his manager George Shapiro (Danny DeVito) to distraction. How can you manage the career of someone who keeps blowing it up? DeVito gives a quietly frustrated performance as this commonsense vulgarian, the voice of reason who says, "Are you doing this to entertain the audience, or yourself?" Kaufman's response is to leave the room -- he knows Shapiro has a point. The casting of DeVito in this role adds another layer of irony, since the real breakout star of Taxi wasn't Kaufman (whose post-Taxi career floundered) but Danny DeVito, who went on to become a respected director and actor (too few people saw him in Living Out Loud, a heartfelt change of pace for him, and a beautifully calibrated performance). Together on Taxi, Kaufman and DeVito were polar opposites: Kaufman's Latka was a naive, huggable blowfish, DeVito's Louie a snapping turtle with a sharp beak. Offscreen, DeVito was about the only cast member who got along with Andy (Jeff Conaway, for one, hated his guts, and you can see the sour-faced, silent Conaway in the movie, a has-been hating Kaufman beyond the grave), and there's a touching subtext in DeVito's reunion with Kaufman Version 2.0.
By now, so much has been written about Jim Carrey's subjugation to the essence of Andy that to heap further praise on him could risk redundancy. There's a central tension between Kaufman and Carrey, though: Kaufman was passive-aggressive -- Carrey is just plain aggressive. Kaufman was better than Carrey at faking flop sweat: Carrey is as fearless as Kaufman was, yet when Carrey mimics Kaufman shuffling his feet nervously, waiting for his cue to lip-sync Mighty Mouse, you don't get the feeling that Carrey's Kaufman might actually be nervous. (Kaufman loved to bomb onstage, but he knew how to simulate stage fright convincingly.) And it's hard at first to get past the physical differences: Kaufman was schlumpy and soft, Carrey is handsome and sharp-featured -- Edward Norton, who was also in the running for the role, would have resembled Andy more closely. But Carrey nails Kaufman's manic entertainer's drive -- his sense of fun, his view of the world as his playpen. Carrey is also affecting in his dramatic moments. Near the end of the movie, when the dying Andy jets to the Phillippines for a miracle cure for his cancer and discovers that the "psychic surgeon" is a quack -- a faker, just like him -- Carrey's gallows laughter alone is worth an Oscar.
Man on the Moon is a teeming, fast-paced spin through a particularly strange show-biz life. It does justice to Kaufman's mystique and genius without pinning him down with psychobabble. The very end, which recreates Tony Clifton's comeback concert appearance a year after Kaufman's death, seems a bit too literal-minded -- a bone thrown to the many people who believe Kaufman faked his death. Yet emotionally it feels right. Even those closest to Andy thought he was kidding when he told them about his fatal lung cancer (he didn't even smoke), and to this day his friends aren't absolutely sure he isn't out there somewhere. (Not long before the movie premiered, the National Enquirer ran a photo of Kaufman's death certificate as irrefutable proof that he really is dead. The "Andy lives" theorists will simply point out that Kaufman often submitted bogus stories about himself to the Enquirer.)
The Andy-faked-his-death theory actually makes more sense than the comparable theories about Elvis, James Dean, or Jim Morrison, because Kaufman had talked about doing it, and it's natural to believe that this was his ultimate joke on everyone. I think the joke goes deeper than that.What if Kaufman knew, years before he actually revealed it, that he had cancer that would eventually kill him? What if he then set out on a highly visible career, packing decades of bizarre experience into one decade of stardom, and gaining a rep for pranks and hoaxes? Then, when he died, everyone would think he faked it, and the speculation would endure for years. His actual death, not his faked death, was his ultimate self-perpetuating joke on us all. "Man on the Moon" simply keeps the joke going.
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