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Man on the Moon

Being Andy Kaufman

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Directed by Milos Forman

Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski

With Jim Carrey, Danny DeVito, Courtney Love, Paul Giamatti

The jawdropping combination of a two-time Oscar winner Milos Forman (the director of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus) and the ex-pet detective Jim Carrey really makes quite a bit of sense. Most of Forman’s films deal with the creative individual battling the system, whether it’s Larry Flynt or McMurphy or just about anyone in Hair. In this way, Forman’s take on the late comedian Andy Kaufman is almost as inspired and profound as his interpretation of Mozart’s life: it’s a riveting story of a true artist, fighting a take-no-prisoners battle with the indifferent system, for the sake of immortal art. The fact that this immortal art in this case is merely stand-up comedy doesn’t diminish the achievement of Man on the Moon; after all, it’s a step up the ladder of respectability from Flynt’s occupation.

One main difference from Amadeus (which this film is similar to in many ways) is that Man on the Moon is, actually, a very simple (albeit not simplistic) film. Its narrative structure, courtesy of Flynt and Ed Wood scribes Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, is as straightforward as they come, and doesn’t differ much from its main stylistic inspiration: the concert films of the 1970s and 1980s. Other than the wondrously inventive prologue (three minutes in black and white, during which I laughed more than during any other film of last year), it has the regular stop-and-go rhythm of a straightforward biopic. We have a scene of Andy performing, followed by a scene backstage (backstage of the club where he performs, or backstage of his life, it doesn’t matter; when Kaufman is concerned, life is truly a stage).

But as they demonstrated in their previous two movies, screenwriters Alexander and Karaszewski have the talent to glean an elegant structure from something as messy as real life. As opposed to Topsy-Turvy, where the same back-and-forth rhythm seems to sap some of the story’s energy, here it’s startlingly effective. On the surface, Man on the Moon is, basically, Andy Kaufman’s Greatest Hits: a series of elaborately recreated performances, practical jokes at everyone’s expense, and abrasive stunts (such as cross-gender wrestling). Every little bit here is priceless, from fragmented lip-synching to the Mighty Mouse theme song, to an impromptu reading of The Great Gatsby in its entirety, to a very public feud with the Southern wrestler Jerry Lawler (playing himself, and very well, too).

Then there’s Kaufman’s private life, and it’s slightly less effective. Danny DeVito does his usual lovable grouch thing: he’s good but, compared with the rest of the movie, entirely too ordinary. On the other hand, whenever the film feels in danger of becoming too ordinary, there is an instant jolt of energy from a colorful supporting character. Courtney Love, in particular, is luminous; this part is a far cry from her searing turn as Althea Flynt (it’s much less flashy and not as big), but Love nails every second, and her character feels like a fully-fledged individual, despite the fact that she has only around four relatively brief scenes.

There’s also the curious and peculiar relationship between Andy Kaufman and the Mozart of all lounge singers, the very talented Mr. Tony Clifton (in a very special appearance as himself).

Jim Carrey is certainly effective when he is being Andy Kaufman, doing some spooky mimicry (he clearly feels some affinity to his subject, given their common origins as stand-up comics and even the shared birthdate, January 17th); he’s less effective when he has to act Andy Kaufman. Carrey still seems to associate seriousness with lassitude; if the few dramatic moments had the same energy as the plentiful funny scenes, they would have worked better. On the other hand, the widespread critical complaint that Carrey doesn’t show what makes Kaufman tick frankly makes no sense to me. One can understand what makes a human being tick in the same way one can understand why a joke is funny or the internal workings of a frog: you just have to be willing to have the subject die as a result of your investigation.

In any case, what makes Man on the Moon work so brilliantly is that there’s a complex theme at work all the time, taking the seemingly disconnected scenes and forming a profound theme, each scene introducing a new twist to this theme, each building on the previous scenes. As a result, the seemingly lackadaisical plot gradually reveals a beautiful and elegant story. It’s no accident that Kaufman’s first popular performance was an Elvis impersonation, and his antics in Carnegie Hall aren’t random, either.

Man on the Moon (in a great final shot, which is simultaneously very subtle and almost triumphal) ends up postulating the immortality of art, and, by extension, the immortality of an artist. All that, and it’s a Jim Carrey comedy, too.