Andy Kaufman is a very particular showbiz phenomenon. He was a legend who inspired a whole generation of comics, yet he never really got the mainstream recognition he deserved. That is until today, with the release of a major picture based on his life. Jim Carrey, who might be the late 90s’ Kaufman, stars as the late “song-and-dance-man”, and you can believe the hype: this is an amazing performance which should easily earn Carrey an Oscar nomination. I mean, this is not Jim Carrey’s take on Kaufman: when you’re watching “Man on the Moon”, you’re watching Andy Kaufman, period. Carrey’s portrayal is dead-on, with all the little mannerisms and voice inflections.
The film was written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who also penned Tim Burton’s wonderfully quirky “Ed Wood” and “The People Versus Larry Flynt”. Once again, the screenwriting duo tackles the life of a true original who went against conventions, to the delight of some and the contempt of others. Here’s three Americans from different eras and domains, but who share an often contagious enthusiasm in things the mainstream looks down upon. Ed Wood loved cheesy sci-fi and agora sweaters, Larry Flynt adores naked women and crude humor, and Andy Kaufman… Well, he’s in a league of his own. The movie shows us how he did everything he could to screw with audiences’ expectations. He goes from character to character, performing pranks and stunts and theater-of-life antics that aren’t quite comedy. It makes some people laugh, it pisses off others… But that’s the point. Andy’s goal is to get a reaction, any reaction. He wants people to remember his act, to have gone through an experience. The way he sees it, it’s better to have people walking out on your show than to have them applauding politely.
Acclaimed director Milos Forman has made yet another terrifically entertaining as well as clever and well crafted movie. It’s the second time in a row he directs a script by Alexander and Karaszewski, and it’s no surprise. He too has made a career out of making movies about characters that don’t fit in the mold, whether it’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”‘s McMurphy, who pretends to be a loony to escape jail, or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a genius at music but sort of a nut in life. Kaufman too can be perceived as insane, but if you look closer, there’s a very sharp and twisted mind at work. Forman’s movie doesn’t really try to find the ‘real’ Kaufman. “There is no real you”, Andy’s told in the film. Hence, the movie chooses instead to rejoice in the many faces of Kaufman.
After an absolutely brilliant mood-setting opening (I wouldn’t dare giving it away, you have to see it for yourself) and a brief look at what his childhood might have been like, Forman takes us through his short but rich career. We see him singing along to the Mighty Mouse theme on Saturday Night Live, impersonating Elvis, doing his hilarious Foreign Man routine (which leads to his character of Latka Gravas on the smash TV sitcom Taxi), confusing people about the nature of his relation with badass lounge singer Tony Clifton, wrestling women until Memphis wrestling star Jerry “The King” Lawler gives him his comeuppance… It’s always hard to know what’s for real, whether is Andy kidding or not. He goes so far that, when he dies of lung cancer, you almost expect him to come back and laugh at our gullibility.
You really have to see “Man on the Moon”. I never expected it would be this great and this hysterically funny. It’s fascinating to watch Kaufman pushing the limits of entertainment, and it goes to show you that life shouldn’t be taken so seriously. Jim Carrey couldn’t be better as Kaufman, and the supporting cast is also very nice. There’s Danny DeVito as Kaufman’s manager George Shapiro, Paul Giamatti as Andy’s friend and partner-in-crime Bob Zmuda, Courtney Love as his girlfriend as well as Jerry Lawler, David Letterman, Lorne Michaels and the Taxi cast as themselves. Oh, and Norm MacDonald as Michael Richards in “Fridays”! As for the REM score, it’s not exceptional, but the use of the melody of their song about Kaufman (“Man on the Moon”, henceforth the title of the film) through the film is neat. Like Andy Kaufman, the movie is always surprising, most often hilarious, sometimes shocking, but never boring. Even in this crowded movie year, “Man on the Moon” stands out as one of 1999’s very best pictures.