Man on the Moon (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Without a doubt, a reaction to comedy is one of the most subjective forms of human expression. What one person finds hilarious, another may view as tedious. For every person who sits through Dumb and Dumber stone-faced and unamused, another will be clutching at his sides as the tears of laughter spill from his eyes. And for everyone who chuckles knowingly at the phrase "No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!", there will be someone who offers a blank, quizzical stare. A person's reaction to a joke has less to do with intelligence, sophistication, or education than with background, mood, and personality. There are some things that almost everyone finds funny, but many attempts at humor will only be appreciated by a select audience that is in the right frame of mind at the right time.

During his lifetime, Andy Kaufman was regarded by fans as a comic genius and by detractors as an out-of-control lunatic. Most of the American public simply didn't understand him, and the numerous outrageous antics of his later life alienated many of those who had initially enjoyed him in the role of Latka Gravas in the TV series Taxi. In 1982, Kaufman was ousted from Saturday Night Live when a phone-in poll gave him less than a 30% favorable rating. Opinions of Kaufman were deeply divided at the time of his 1984 death from lung cancer. In subsequent years, as often happens with performers who suffer an untimely demise, his reputation has been rehabilitated, and it's difficult to find anyone who doesn't remember him fondly. Man on the Moon, with its title taken from the R.E.M. song, is director Milos Forman's unabashedly favorable look at Kaufman's public years, and may represent the final chapter in the comedian's restoration to a platform of affection and respect.

Man on the Moon shares a few elements with Forman's previous outing, The People Vs. Larry Flynt. Both are slightly fictionalized biographies that deal with men who are regarded as mavericks by society. However, while The People Vs. Larry Flynt offered Forman a forum in which to argue the importance of free speech, Man on the Moon is more of a straight character portrait. It touches on a few key issues - the line dividing madness from genius and the nature of comedy - but it is predominantly concerned with unraveling the mystery of Andy Kaufman - at least to the degree that a motion picture can do so.

Man on the Moon opens with the most inventive prologue of any 1999 feature. Jim Carrey, who bears an eerie resemblance to Kaufman, walks on stage and announces in Latka's voice, "Hello. I am Andy and I would like to thank you for coming to my movie." He then notes how the final result didn't meet with his approval, so he decided to edit it - until there was nothing left. With that, he starts playing a record, and the end credits roll. It's like one of those episodes of Monty Python where the credits run mid-way through the program. This isn't going to confound many viewers, but it is undeniably an unusual way to begin a movie.

In telling its story of Kaufman's rise to fame and fall out of favor, Man on the Moon briefly visits him as a young boy, then zooms ahead to the mid-'70s, when he is starting his career as a stand-up comedian in improv clubs. One night, agent George Shapiro (Danny DeVito) sees him perform and decides that he wants to represent him. When the two later meet, Kaufman confides to Shapiro that he considers himself to be a song & dance man, not a comedian. "I don't do jokes. I don't even know what's funny." Following his signing with Shapiro, Kaufman makes an appearance as a "musical guest" on the first episode of Saturday Night Live, then goes on to star in Taxi. Along with his writing partner, Bob Zmuda (Paul Giamatti), he pens a prime time special that ABC executives nix, calling it bizarre and unfunny. Meanwhile, Kaufman is living a double life - his alter ego is an offensive and thoroughly untalented lounge singer named Tony Clifton.

Once he has the spotlight, Kaufman is unwilling to become creatively apathetic. He enjoys playing with his mercurial image and toying with the lines between fantasy and reality. So he sets himself up as a sexist wrestler who will only wrestle women. His first public "bout" occurs on the Merv Griffin show, where he defeats a woman named Lynn Marguiles (Courtney Love), with whom he later falls in love. Other matches follow, until Kaufman is challenged to go one-on-one with the King of Wrestling, Jerry Lawler.

At one point, Lynn remarks to Kaufman that "there isn't a real you." It's a telling statement. By that point, how much of Kaufman's genuine personality remains? Does he even know who he is any more? Perhaps it's only in the quiet moments, when he's far away from the gleam of the spotlight, that his true self emerges, however briefly. In fact, Kaufman becomes so adept at the art of deception and illusion that, when he discovers he has terminal cancer, no one believes him. His family views it as the latest in a series of cruel practical jokes and believes that his doctor is a paid actor. Like the boy who has cried wolf once too often, Kaufman must struggle to convince those around him that, for once, he is serious. (This is one element I wish the movie had explored in greater depth - parts of the final half hour feel a little rushed, although the coda is one that Kaufman would have been pleased with.)

The success of Man on the Moon rests squarely on the shoulders of Jim Carrey, who, with this performance, completes the transition from off-the-wall comedian to serious actor that he began in The Truman Show. Not only does Carrey imitate Kaufman almost perfectly (including matching his trademark "Thank you very much"), but he employs this mimickry in the service of a compelling performance. The forcefulness with which the film conveys Kaufman's character is as much a function of Carrey's portrayal as it is of the script from which he is working. This is a role that Carrey, a lifelong Kaufman fan, wanted desperately, and, once he got it, he poured every ounce of his talent into his work. An Academy Award nomination is warranted.

Courtney Love, who played Larry Flynt's love interest in The People Vs. Larry Flynt, re-teams with Forman for this film, where she occupies the smaller role of Kaufman's girlfriend. Love is adequate, but the part doesn't offer the same degree of exposure she was granted in Larry Flynt. The most interesting casting choice is that of Danny DeVito as Kaufman's friend and agent, George Shapiro. By accepting this role, DeVito is unable to appear as himself in the montage of Taxi clip recreations that are depicted (which feature original stars Judd Hirsch, Christopher Lloyd, Marilu Henner, Jeff Conaway, and Carol Kane, all looking long-in-the-tooth). In fact, re-creations are an important part of Man on the Moon. In addition to the Taxi and SNL bits, many of Kaufman's public appearances are resurrected, including an infamous guest spot on David Letterman's show.

Anyone concerned that the picture might turn into an unsavory exposé can rest easy. Two of the executive producers are George Shapiro and Bob Zmuda, and the film's end credits (the real ones, not the ones that roll at the beginning) thank three members of the Kaufman family. Man on the Moon does not whitewash its lead character, but he is presented as a likable, albeit strange, protagonist. And, as a side benefit, we are given the opportunity to peer behind the scenes at some of the goings-on in Kaufman's projects. There are many reasons to see Man on the Moon, but the two most compelling are to appreciate the way the movie works on many levels and to experience what will almost certainly be the crowning performance of Jim Carrey's career.

Man on the Moon (United States, 1999)

Director: Milos Forman
Cast: Jim Carrey, Danny DeVito, Paul Giamatti, Courtney Love, Jerry Lawler
Screenplay: Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski
Cinematography: Anastas N. Michos
Music: R.E.M.
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:59
U.S. Release Date: 1999-12-22
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Nudity, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1