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Man on the Moon

Review by Elias Savada
Posted 24 December 1999

Directed by Milos Forman.

  Starring Jim Carrey, 
Danny DeVito, Courtney Love, 
Paul Giamatti.

  Written by Scott Alexander 
Larry Karaszewski.

In this heartfelt, engaging, yet ultimately unfulfilling, effort to perpetuate the myth that was Andy Kaufman, director Milos Forman pushes the cinematic envelope to blur the outrageously unique character of the late entertainer with the larger-than-life capabilities the silver screen can afford the whimsical legacy that surrounded one of the 1970’s and 1980’s most bizarre comedians. That point is driven home at ground zero, as the film blasts off with a black-and-white image of Andy, played with a take-no-prisoners bravado by Jim Carrey, his eyes darting around his face like loose atoms on the verge of explosion, and his voice quivering in that obscure yet instantly recognizable foreign dialect. He issues a semi-determined vocal disclaimer that the movie is terrible. Vowing to cut all the baloney, he announces the film is ending. Reminiscent of Matthew Broderick’s post-credit, exit-pointing at the conclusion of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, while at the same time borrowing from one of Kaufman’s many scandalous concoctions, patrons may wonder why they plunked down big holiday bucks for a short subject. As the final credits immediately start to scroll, the audience is dared to escape what will soon become a two-hour tribute to my peer generation’s Rasputin.

Stick around.

Dissolving from his Long Island childhood, where a pre-teen Andy tries to charm the baseballs and bats out of the sports figures that decorate his bedroom wallpaper, to his first, disastrous attempts at small-time improvisation, we begin to see the schizophrenic identities developing from the inner recesses of a warped mind. His fretful parents and siblings put up with his “boy who cried wolf” shenanigans through to the very end, never fully understanding his demented artistic inspiration. Many viewers, especially those who never heard of or cared about (especially the latter) the performer’s unorthodox, torture-chamber parody, will undoubtedly lose something in Forman’s relatively straightforward, jam-packed translation.

Along from that disturbingly funny comedy club start is George Shapiro, Andy’s devoted manager from 1975 until his death. Danny DeVito, who wears one of the several producer hats (along with his Jersey Films cohorts Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher), plays the role against type, while at the same time grabbing from his own recollections portraying petty tyrant Louie De Palma opposite Andy as Latka Gravas, the fractured mechanic, on the set of the five-year cross-network sitcom Taxi. Recreating the set and appearing as themselves are age-defying regulars Judd Hirsch, Christopher Lloyd, Marilu Henner, Carol Kane, Jeff Conaway, and Randall Carver. No, DeVito doesn’t appear as himself in these segments. Ugly American lounge-lizard- from-Hell Tony Clifton (according to press material, he’s now resides in a retirement community in Lake Tahoe, Nevada), one of the masterful, mysterious performance art creations dreamed up by Kaufman and frequent collaborator Bob Zmuda (Paul Giamatti), makes his short-lived television debut before a stunned cast and crew. He reappears from time to time, and provides a fitting, enigmatic postscript late in the picture.

Whether doing his own “Mighty Mouse” routine on Saturday Night Live, the Tony Clifton gigs, or the extended 236-lb. pro wrestler Jerry Lawler (who plays himself) inter-gender wrestling gag, the brilliant insanity is unhinged by writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, creators of the offbeat biopic Ed Wood and Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt fame. According to the seemingly truth-based script (using 300 pages of taped conversations between George Shapiro and his client, as well as dozens of interviews), Kaufman never thought of himself as a comedian; he was more of a conniving manipulator, pushing his fans and detractors alike to the limit, but acting the spoiled brat when their expectations of him weren’t met. This is instanced by Kaufman’s lengthy reading, in British accent, of The Great Gatsby before a expectant, then ruefully bored, crowd of Arizona State college students. Which doesn’t mean Andy wasn’t funny—in his own childish, immature way. There’s an air of innocence hovering overhead, but there’s also an impish devil lurking beneath his surface.

The filmmakers constantly evoke the Guerrilla-theater antics of the star with a bludgeon-like, spit-in-your-face precision. The film-watching audience squirms watching their celluloid counterparts fidget with nervous laughter. For those of us familiar with the times and the person, we can laugh along. Thank goodness Forman is a director of high quality, and even this lesser attempt is a better-than-average effort, but one, alas, that will probably end up a footnote rather than a trophy, like his Amadeus and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, on his mantle.

Filling out the thespian bill is Courtney Love, back again as the main love interest for Forman, but with only momentary glimpses during the second hour. At first, she’s a loser in the wrestling ring, then she’s asked by Andy to wear his wedding ring, only to be duped at ringside during the initial stages of Andy’s anti-women, anti-South brouhaha developing out of Memphis, the wrestling capital of the world.

One of the more Pyrrhic recreations is Kaufman’s “happening” appearance on ABC’s late night comedy-variety show Fridays, with Andy’s refusal to participate in a drug sketch and the anarchy, initial and secondary, that follows.

While mostly centering on the star’s edgy lunacy and command for behavior science (I keep envisioning him a sort of comic test tube), the film turns slightly serious when he is diagnosed with a rare form of lung cancer that will kill him within five years. With Kaufman nothing seemed that serious, and it was nigh well impossible for his friends and family to believe the joke’s on him. The ineffectiveness of the chemotherapy prods him to seek out alternative cures, including a final laugher in the Philippines, but years before he made his final exit, he pulled off a heart-stopper at Carnegie Hall before his adoring fans and now-resigned family, showing how often he could reinvent himself.

The film’s infatuation with honestly with resurrecting the idiosyncratic nature of a true genius, albeit one who could just as easily shoot himself in the foot and bleed over his audience, will probably be it’s undoing. Andy Kaufman will still a comedy minor leaguer, a brief ironic blip, and it seems in death Forman gives him what he rarely got in life: a truly rousing, standing ovation.

For the curious, some of the people portrayed in the film appear in other roles: George Shapiro is a disgruntled club owner who cans Andy at the start of his career, while his partner Howard West pops up as a snobby ABC executive. The real Bob Zmuda pops up briefly, too.

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