Man on the Moon
by Jon Bastian
Carrey flies over the moon, but the rest of the film stays on the launchpad.
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Kaufman.” It’s his stunning, tour-de-force performance that holds together this Milos Forman biopic. If it weren’t for Carrey, Man on the Moon would be just another “moments from famous lives” effort. As it is, the film barely escapes being less than the sum of its parts, but only because the part at the center is just so damn good.
While watching Man on the Moon, I couldn’t help make mental comparisons to two other films. One, The People vs. Larry Flynt, is obvious, because Forman also directed it and Courtney Love also played the love interest, proving she can best be described, in Southern parlance, as someone who “scrubs up real nice.” The other film, Private Parts, seems like a more obscure comparison, but is actually the better yardstick, more on which later.
Like Flynt, Man on the Moon doesn’t waste any time on the childhood. Both films have exactly one early scene. In the former case, young Larry Flynt conks his daddy with a jug of moonshine for ripping him off. In the latter, young Andy performs an imaginary TV show for his wallpaper, until his father tells him he has to perform for real, live people. Next thing we know, he’s being discovered by an agent while performing in a nightclub years later. The rest of the story is… well, if you watched any TV in the late 70s and early 80s, or saw the Andy Kaufman tribute on cable a while back, you know the rest of the story. Kaufman does SNL (Saturday Night Live) guest spot, Kaufman gets role on Taxi, Kaufman gets into wrestling, Kaufman gets cancer and dies. Maybe.
The story really is told here that much by the numbers, to the extent that when the inevitable fall after the rapid rise does come, Kaufman gets all the bad news in back to back scenes: SNL doesn’t want you, Taxi is cancelled, oh, by the way, you have cancer — wham, wham, wham. Now, I’m not saying the film itself isn’t enjoyable. Moments are hilarious, and it’s a tribute to how beloved the real Andy Kaufman was that many of his original on-screen costars play themselves here. Of course, it’s a little ghoulish to see most of the uncredited cast of Taxi made up as was best possible to make them look twenty years younger. (Oddly enough, Christopher Lloyd’s Reverend Jim is the only character who doesn’t seem to have aged a day, physically.)
There are a lot of twisted casting treats for sharp-eyed fans here: Taxi costar Danny DeVito as George Shapiro, Andy’s long suffering manager; the real George Shapiro as a club owner; Kaufman writer Bob Zmuda as a stagehand; Peter Bonerz (a very successful TV director) as Taxi producer and sometime director Ed Weinberger; Norm MacDonald as Michael (Seinfeld) Richards (!); and Lorne Michaels and David Letterman popping up as themselves, the former in an actual dramatic role, albeit a small one.
Spoiler warning, if you’d rather not have a nice surprise ruined, skip this paragraph… A highlight in the supporting cast is Paul Giamatti, who burst on the scene (a ten year overnight success) in Private Parts as the man nicknamed Pig Vomit, and doesn’t seem to have stopped working since. Proving his versatility, he plays one of the good guys here, Bob Zmuda, who was Andy’s writer, right-hand man and co-perpetrator in much of the “was it or wasn’t it?” mayhem Andy caused. Zmuda went so far as to sometimes play Andy’s alter-ego, Tony Clifton, in order to make it appear to the public that Andy and Clifton weren’t the same person, and continued to play Clifton after Kaufman’s presumed death. In a sense, Kaufman early on split himself into good and evil roles — Andy Kaufman, who did his benign Dada humor, and Tony Clifton, glitzy Vegas lounge singer who abused his audiences and (maybe) represented everything Kaufman hated. We get a hint in Man on the Moon that Kaufman eventually tried to re-absorb Clifton, letting the evil persona come out in his wrestling adventure, a career turn that put off a lot of his fans. In fact, in the movie, we’re left with more Clifton than Kaufman, with the strong hint that all any celebrity really is, to us, is the image they create, and never a real person at all.
This is where the film most misses the boat, in not further illuminating the relationship between Zmuda and Kaufman. By the time we meet Zmuda, it’s clear that the two are old friends, but that’s all we ever know. The two seem joined at the hip, of one mind when it comes to giving the world a comedy mindfuck — but we never find out where this came from. While all the recreations of famous moments from real life are nice, that’s the stuff of TV movies. Theatrical films should give us guts, and after Man on the Moon, it feels like Kaufamn’s real guts were in the years between entertaining his wallpaper and being discovered. Zmuda may even be partly to blame for this, since he co-produced the film. He, more than anyone, could have illuminated those years and those reasons. Why he didn’t, I don’t know. Modesty? Self-protection? Something else? The end result is that we get Andy Kaufman as preexisting comedic genius, which may be the case, but watching him spring full-grown into the world isn’t all that illuminating.
As mentioned above, the illumination here comes from Carrey. He doesn’t play Kaufman; Kaufman plays him. He’s been possessed, right down to the self-deprecating hunch and the weirdly buggy eyes. A lot of people could impersonate Latka Gravas or Kaufman-as-Elvis. Very few could portray him as a real person, especially not the maddeningly contradictory real person Kaufman was. The Clifton-Kaufman split wasn’t the only aspect of his personality that defied description. Kaufman was into Transcendental Meditation even while playing the part of misogynistic macho-man bent on wrestling “inferior” women. He used both Western and new age medicine in an effort to cure his cancer. He could treat his audiences with complete contempt and make them laugh at it, but seemed utterly loyal to the small circle around him. Indeed, there must have been something likable about the real Andy Kaufman, otherwise, that small circle wouldn’t have stayed with him.
This brings me back to Private Parts. At the end of that film, we understood who Howard Stern was, and why his crew stayed with him, no matter how rude his radio identity seemed to be. The big difference there was that Stern’s biopic told his story before he made it big, and ended as he had his first major success. It was a movie about a real person that tried to explain where his public identity came from and how it was created. Man on the Moon never gets beyond the public Andy Kaufman we all thought we knew, and goes so far as to dance around the big question he left behind: “Did he or didn’t he die?” Maybe the filmmakers figured this wasn’t the wrong choice. After all, with Andy Kaufman, the created person was everything. He, more than anyone else, was a modern pioneer in the media put-on game, constantly walking a high-wire, daring the audience to think he was joking, fooling them into thinking it was the truth, then making fun of them for falling for the joke. His comedy was way ahead of its time, and much of the self-aware ironic humor of the 90s owes itself to Kaufman’s groundbreaking. If Man on the Moon could have broken one-tenth of the new ground Kaufman did, it would have been a spectacular film. While it falls far short of spectacular, it’s still a must-see, as a beloved TV performer of this generation impersonates a misunderstood and under appreciated TV performer of another generation. I did find myself wondering, if Andy Kaufman had lived, what he’d be doing now. The fact that my next thought was, “if he’s really dead…” says volumes about his true genius and impact.
Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles. He is a playwright and screenwriter who works in the TV trade to keep his dogs rolling in kibble.
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