movie review by
Gary Johnson



(© 1999 Universal Pictures, Inc. All rights reserved.)

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Man on the Moon
After working for several months on the script for the Andy Kaufman bio-pic Man On the Moon, screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski were stumped. They couldn't figure out who Andy was. They felt sort of like Joseph Cotton in Citizen Kane: with every interview they conducted, they got a different picture of their quarry. Eventually, Lynne Margulies (who had lived with Andy for his last two years) gave them some key advice: "Guys, there was no real Andy."

Alexander and Karaszewski embraced this insight from Margulies. Instead of trying to understand Andy and explain him dramatically to the audience, they would allow him to remain an enigma. This is an unusual approach for a film. How many times have we heard audiences and critics complain that they couldn't get a handle on a movie's lead character? By design Man On the Moon would not explain away Andy Kaufman. Instead, the movie would emphasize that no matter how many times Andy removed a mask, there was always another mask underneath. He was a mystery even to his closest friends.

Man On the Moon does provide some glimpses into Andy's psychological make-up, but Andy resists any simple explanations. In one of the movie's most insightful scenes, Andy and best friend (co-conspirator) Bob Zmuda talk about a routine that Andy will perform in his stage act, and Andy's agent, George Shapiro (played by Danny DeVito) says, "Who are you trying to entertain? The audience or yourself?" It's a telling comment, for Andy wasn't a conventional comedian. Maybe he wasn't a comedian at all: "I'm not a comedian. I don't even know what's funny," he says in Man On the Moon. He preferred to think of himself as "a song and dance man." When he walked on stage, he didn't believe he had to be funny--but he insisted he had to be interesting. Robin Williams called him the "kamikaze of comedians" because Andy didn't care if he bombed. In fact, in some situations, he wanted to bomb. Above everything else, he wanted to confuse audiences and maybe even make them mad. For Andy, that was entertainment--to leave an audience with their mouths gaping open. But, once again, as George Shapiro asked, who is being entertained?

As portrayed by Jim Carrey, Andy Kaufman doesn't have a good answer for Shapiro--because the question isn't really valid. With a childlike view of the world, Andy sees life as all about his own desires and needs. The audience's needs? Get real. Carrey gives us a character who loves practical jokes, who lives off of the confusion in his wake. For Andy, that confusion was a sublime form of entertainment. To create confusion, he gave us characters who constantly got into awkward situations, and then he watched as the audience reacted. One of his most well-known bits featured him walking onstage with just a small phonograph. When he dropped the needle onto the record, we heard the "Mighty Mouse Theme." He patiently waited beside the phonograph, grinning awkwardly and looking at the ceiling and walls, until the chorus arrived--"Here I come to save the day!" he lip-synched while moving his arm in a wide arc before becoming still again and waiting for the next chorus. That was it.

In Man On the Moon, Jim Carrey nails these moments to perfection. If you watch Carrey from the corner of your eyes, you might even swear he is Andy Kaufman. Carrey doesn't always fare so well. When he plays Kaufman's darker characters, such as the "intergender" wrestler, Carrey can't approximate the malevolence in Kaufman's face and eyes. Carrey becomes simply a raving loony. Part of the problem is Carrey's face. His eyes and nose and mouth are always working, striving for a joke. However, Kaufman's face wasn't necessarily comedic. True, when his eyes bulged out as the little foreign man--"Dank you veddy much"--the effect was comedic, but Kaufman could also obliterate the comedic from his face and body language. That's one reason people were so confused about his wrestling character: "Why don't you go back to the kitchen where you belong, baby!" he would shout. "I got the brains and you're just a girl!"

However, Carrey comes about as close as we could hope to capturing Kaufman. He performs without any makeup to augment the characterization--except, of course, when he becomes Kaufman's lounge-singing, abusive alter-ego, Tony Clifton ("Don't ever call me Andy! I'm Tony, Tony Clifton! And don't you ever forget it!").

Director Milos Forman keeps the story moving at an amazingly fast pace. We get the story of Andy's life--from his childhood in Great Neck, Long Island to his bouts with lung cancer--and it's all packed into less than two hours. When movies such as The Green Mile take three hours to tell their stories, that's the epitome of economy.

The screenplay by Alexander and Karaszewski is wonderfully concise. It tells us what we need to know and it leaves out the rest. As Foreign Man tells us in the movie's inventive opening sequence--where Andy directly addresses the audience--"All of the most important things in my life are, are, are changed around and mixed up for umm, dramatic purposes." The filmmakers may take liberties with Kaufman's life but they remain true to the spirit of Kaufman, as in the very Kaufman-esque opening, where Andy tells everyone the movie is "crap" and orders them to leave the theater: "Go on!" he says, peeking from the edge of the screen. Then, after several seconds of silence and darkness, he turns on the real movie. This sort of prank would have impressed Kaufman himself.

[rating: 3½ of 4 stars]