Man on the Moon

Capturing the mimic, not the man.

SOME JOKE. Fifteen years after his death, Andy Kaufman is back from the grave, Houdini-like, to pull one last prank on his fans. He's been resurrected thanks to an uncannily vivid performance by Jim Carrey, who appears as Foreign Man—the precursor to Taxi's Latka—before the initial credits roll. He opens his mouth and you think he's lip-synching (just as Kaufman did to his beloved children's records on SNL). Carrey's got the voice, and the dark, shifty eyes, plus the tight throat and mouth—like he's swallowed something secret and won't let it out. It's a funny preface (though indebted to Monty Python), as Andy provides a genial disclaimer to the movie "filled with colorful characters"—like the performer himself.

MAN ON THE MOON

directed by Milos Forman

with Jim Carrey, Danny DeVito, and Courtney Love

opens December 22 at local theaters

We first glimpse those characters as young Andy performs them for the imaginary TV camera in his bedroom wall, then for his kid sister, then—with a jump cut—for a bewildered comedy club audience in the early '70s. Later, at a similar venue, the polyester-clad hipsters can't decide whether Andy's terrible or putting them on. Among the crowd is his future manager George (Danny DeVito), who recognizes genius when Andy segues from Foreign Man to his spot-on Elvis (and back). Andy protests to George, "I'm not a comedian. I don't even know what's funny."

From there, the movie episodically reprises the trajectory of Andy's career (rise and fall) in a surprisingly traditional biopic fashion. It simply repeats all the things we've seen before—on SNL, on Letterman, on cable reruns, on recent TV tributes. Carrey's amazing in these recreations of Kaufman's routines, but why bother? Despite their marvelous verisimilitude (downright creepy with the original cast of Taxi aged 20 years), they violate a fundamental rule of moviemaking: Don't show something the audience already knows.

DESPITE ITS POTENTIAL, Man on the Moon never achieves escape velocity. Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski previously explored the illusions and delusions of showbiz in Ed Wood. Yet there we concentrated on the demented personalities behind the scenes, not their creations. Maybe Forman let Kaufman's routines overwhelm his movie because he couldn't get a handle on the man—which isn't surprising. His Andy is like Zelig or Chauncy Gardner in Being There—a blank slate, a void, an absence. The best Forman and his writers can do is provide a corny innocence-lost-and-regained structure to their story, with the libidinous Tony Clifton character symbolizing Kaufman's divided psyche and midcareer slide into darkness.

What a lost opportunity, especially in the year of Being John Malkovich, when so many films are addressing issues of identity. We learn details about Kaufman—he meditated, went to whorehouses, and seems to have been phobic about germs—but no serious effort is made to integrate or explain them. "Kaufman is a lying bastard!" says Tony Clifton, whose depravity is no more convincing than Foreign Man's sweetness. They may be halves of a schizophrenic on stage, but they're also both an act. And if identity is a trap from which Kaufman, like Houdini, sought to escape, why was his so oppressive?

For all this film's big-screen talent, Kaufman's is a small-screen story. Forman fared better with the oversize genius of Mozart, over-the-top vulgarity of Larry Flynt, or overwrought drama of Cuckoo's Nest. And he never makes clear what Kaufman hopes to achieve with his Brechtian provocations. "The audience expects me to shock them all the time," is Andy's vague defense. Maybe this baby boomer icon represented that generation's sour apotheosis of ironic posturing (crossing a line that Steve Martin and Robin Williams would not). Then perhaps Kaufman lost favor because he had no underlying, endearing personality—besides those he invented. If his life was a performance that we found entertaining, Man on the Moon effectively simulates the act without illuminating its inscrutable actor.

 
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