I am afraid I cannot take credit for voicing this feeling about the movie so succinctly – Man on the Moon does little to tell me about Andy Kaufman outside of what public documents already told me, yet it does make me want to go back and watch the real thing with more attention. This is not a negative statement, but Kaufman’s proto-post-modern approach to entertainment simultaneously needs total scientific dissection *or* to be left utterly alone and enjoyed for what it is: crazy randomness. It is interesting to see eerie recreations of famous moments of Kaufman’s life – those I had not seen for myself were confirmed as creepily accurate – but at the same time, all this could have been edited together in a documentary. The backstage world of Kaufman, mostly conveyed through his long time partner Bob Zmuda, is what we yearn to see more of. As Kaufman himself puts it, it is “a shining moment for behavioral science.”
Spielberg has taught us one thing – show us less of the monster and more of how people are reacting to the monster, and we will have one cool monster. Forman takes this to heart, and fills the screen with really fantastic reaction shots of Kaufman’s audience, employers, family, strangers, all kinds of people – Kaufman did what he did to amuse himself and to get a reaction, any reaction, from his audience – and we get to see it. It is one of the more interesting aspects of the film which I suspect will be left out of many reviews – the extras casting and direction in this film is truly wonderful, and frankly, does more to show us the kind of splash Kaufman made, the type of responses he got. No laugh track on Taxi can tell us how his antics were regarded by the hoi polloi.
Director Milos Forman delights in playing Andy to us as well, sometimes not letting us in on the joke, as Andy would have done, and sometimes this works against his film in the viewing – later, we can discuss and decide for ourselves what happened, but Forman doesn’t give us much insight. Amadeus, Forman’s most notable previous semi-biopic of a famous genius/lunatic who died too early, is forgivable because of course, Mozart is long dead and we have less access to interviewees. Kaufman’s friends, coworkers, lover, and partners collaborated on this film – and it’s beautiful to see the names in the credits in both columns (“as himself” as well as production roles). Perhaps none of them knew what the hell Kaufman was doing most of the time, and so they agreed just to lay out the facts, as a sort of homage. Perhaps his will stipulated that any biopic of his life be just as bait and switch oddball as his life’s career. But everyone is there, and it’s clear that everyone misses him. I as an audience member wish I could have been given more personal reasons to miss him, as compared to feeling a loss in the entertainment firmament.
I do a disservice to Jim Carrey not mentioning him until now. Poor Jim has painted himself into a similar corner as author Stephen King – they are each top of his trade, master of what he does and loves, and just can’t get the proper respect for his skills. Carrey has made a wise career move, playing Kaufman, who is bizarre and funny, but it would be considered a dramatic role. And he is amazing. Sometimes you can’t help but see the actor behind the character (Robin Williams for all his dramatic punch falls into this occasionally) and Jim Carrey’s strong personality can’t help but shine through every role he has taken recently – but Kaufman is truly alive on screen, in all his incarnations. I can’t say enough good things about Jim Carrey in this film – he is all the difference between a confusing, unilluminating historical document and a beautiful homage to the bizarreness that is Andy Kaufman. Similar to Val Kilmer’s creepily real Jim Morrison, Carrey’s Kaufman will be the gold standard the real performer is measured by. Regardless of how satisfied you are by Forman’s treatment of his interesting subject matter, you have to see this movie for Jim.
And no, Danny DeVito does not play himself on Taxi. As real-life producer of the film, DeVito also plays the man who discovered and represented Andy in his tumultuous life, rather than a castmate on a hastily mentioned arc of his public career.
MPAA Rating R for language and brief sexuality/nudity.
Release date 1/16/99
Time in minutes 118
Director Milos Forman
Studio Universal Pictures