Man on the Moon Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1999

Andy made himself the premise and the rest of the world was the punch-line.

- Robin Williams

Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman

Who was Andy Kaufman, and why should we care?

Born to an affluent family in the Long Island suburb of Great Neck, Andy Kaufman displayed his love for show business at an early age, conducting pretend television broadcasts from his bedroom at the age of four, which gradually evolved into being a paid entertainer for children's parties. However, Kaufman's professional career as an entertainer officially began in 1971, when he was discovered by Improv Comedy Club owner Budd Friedman, who signed him on for several gigs at his clubs in New York and Los Angeles.

It was at the Improv that Kaufman's eclectic mix of performance art and comedy was unleashed onto unsuspecting audiences, including some of his more famous bits. These included the Foreign Man doing an Elvis impersonation, having the audience join him for the entire rendition of "One Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall", his impersonation of boorish Las Vegas lounge singer Tony Clifton, reading "The Great Gatsby" from cover-to-cover, sleeping, and playing the conga drums. Audiences, accustomed to the usual stand-up routine paradigm, were unsure how to react-- some were confused and some stormed out in disgust, but there were those who understood what Kaufman's brand of humor was about, and couldn't wait to see what he would do next. It was also at the Improv that Kaufman met his long-time collaborator and friend, Bob Zmuda, one of the few people who spoke on Kaufman's wavelength and encouraged him on.

Then in October of 1975, Kaufman got his big break, performing his now famous "Mighty Mouse" lip-sync on the inaugural broadcast of "Saturday Night Live". In addition to several return performances onto "Saturday Night Live" (until the audience voted him off the show in 1982), Kaufman kept himself busy on the talk show circuit (including "The Tonight Show"), an appearance as the Foreign Man on "Hollywood Squares", a couple of movie roles and guest spots on television specials, and his infamous appearance on "The Dating Game" as contestant 'Baji Kimran'.

Is it an act? Or are you addicted to causing trouble?

Kaufman's career continued to move skyward in 1978 when he was signed on to the cast of "Taxi", where he played foreign auto mechanic Latka Gravas. Though he stayed with the show for six years (until its cancellation), Kaufman was generally unhappy being on a sitcom, since he felt that he would forever be typecast as his Foreign Man character. In addition, his "Taxi" co-stars weren't happy with him either, as they grew tired of Kaufman's antics and often-arrogant behavior-- this animosity came to a full boil when "Taxi" cast member Jeff Conaway punched Kaufman during the 1979 Golden Globes awards ceremony.

Aren't you Andy Kaufman?
I get that all the time.
Courtney Love and Jim Carrey

Though he was tied down to "Taxi", Kaufman still found the time for his unorthodox pursuits. Despite the money that his work on "Taxi" was bringing in, Kaufman worked as a part-time busboy at Posh Bagel in Santa Monica, and Jerry's Famous Deli in Studio City. Kaufman also began his 'World Intergender Wrestling Federation', where he challenged women to wrestle with him, promising any woman who could beat him a $1000 prize-- he remained undefeated until 1982, when he was pile-driven into the hospital by professional wrestler Jerry Lawler, a wrestling match/publicity stunt that was set-up a few weeks earlier on "Late Night with David Letterman". It was also this time that he met his long-time girlfriend Lynne Margulies.

However, it all came to a crashing halt on May 16, 1984, when it was announced that Andy Kaufman was dead at the age of 35, the victim of a rare form of lung cancer. On the other hand, there are those who believe that Kaufman's death is just another one of his 'twisted jokes', and that he is waiting for the right moment to return and deliver the punch-line. Over the years, this belief has been perpetuated by rumors of Kaufman making a surprise appearance on Letterman, or the numerous Andy or Tony Clifton sightings over the years.

I'm not a comedian... I don't do jokes... I don't even know what's funny.
Danny DeVito

So who was Andy Kaufman, and why should we care? Was he a misunderstood comic genius ahead of his time, or just an incorrigible troublemaker? These are the questions posed by "Man on the Moon" (named after the R.E.M. song), an Andy Kaufman biopic that brings together director Milos Forman ("The People vs. Larry Flynt") and comedian Jim Carrey ("The Truman Show"). In its two hour running time, "Man on the Moon" delves into the mystery of the Andy Kaufman, and tries to make sense of his life and why he did the crazy things that earned him both applause and notoriety.

The film starts off interestingly enough with a typical Kaufman-esque episode. Kaufman (Carrey) walks on screen, sporting his Foreign Man accent, and apologizes to the audience for how bad the movie is, runs the ending credits, and then proceeds to ask everyone to leave. If you remember one thing about this film, this would be it.

You don't even know the real me.
That's because there is no real you.
Oh yeah... I forgot.

The film then moves into a more traditional narrative as it recounts highlights of Kaufman's career, from his early days working the club circuit, to his death in 1984. Along the way, Kaufman meets many of his lifelong friends, including agent George Shapiro (Danny DeVito of "The Rainmaker"), girlfriend Lynne Margulies (singer Courtney Love, who also appeared in Forman's "The People vs. Larry Flynt"), and Bob Zmuda (Paul Giamatti of "The Negotiator"). Though the film is straightforward until the very end, there's a lot of material to cover and at times, especially in the film's middle section, it seems to wander aimlessly from anecdote to anecdote, which is the film's only fault. Thankfully, the film regains its direction in the last half-hour, as Kaufman comes to grips with his own mortality.

To add a level of unparalleled authenticity to the proceedings, Forman recreates in loving detail the pivotal events of Kaufman's life, bringing on board numerous celebrities to play themselves, including wrester Jerry Lawler, the entire cast of "Taxi" (Judd Hirsch, Marilu Henner, Christopher Lloyd, Jeff Conaway, and others, with the exception of DeVito), David Letterman, and Lorne Michaels. From the unforgettable "Mighty Mouse" bit on "Saturday Night Live" to his famous Carnegie Hall Christmas pageant (after which he invited the entire audience out for milk and cookies), "Man on the Moon" captures it all.

Who are you trying to entertain? The audience or yourself?
The real Andy Kaufman

Of course, much of the success for "Man on the Moon" can be attributed to Carrey, who seems to have put aside the rubber-faced antics of his early days and become a true dramatic actor. Carrey does not simply act as Kaufman... he becomes him, both the good and the bad, as though he were channeling the late comic. Furthermore, Carrey's performance is not merely limited to regurgitating Kaufman's best bits (which faithfully incorporate the uncomfortable moments of silence that confused audiences)-- Carrey also endeavors to show us the 'real' Kaufman, if there ever was such a thing, and how his entire philosophy on 'entertaining the audience' was reflected in his often boorish and distasteful public performances. Can you say 'Oscar'?

Other nods would have to be given to DeVito, whose exasperated character wrestles with a client who marches to the beat of a distant drum (often at the expense of his own career), and Giamatti, who shares Kaufman's boyish enthusiasm for the eclectic and obscure. Love, as Kaufman's girlfriend, is given a small role in this film, yet she excels in portraying the emotional depth of her character, who is in love with a man who is difficult to love.

Whether you liked Andy Kaufman, hated him, or don't remember who he was, Jim Carrey's virtuoso performance as the late comic, under the careful direction of Milos Forman, makes "Man on the Moon" a definite 'must-see' film for the holiday season. Though it earns high marks alone for seamlessly recreating the unique brand of humor that Kaufman inflicted on his audiences, the true magic in this film is how it attempts to uncover the real Andy Kaufman, shedding light on the method behind the madness.

Images courtesy of Universal Pictures. All rights reserved.

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