Program Notes: Man on the Moon (1999)
"Nobody knows the real me," frets comic Andy Kaufman.
His girlfriend is unimpressed with this show of angst: "There is no real you."
"Oh yeah," Kaufman says. "I forgot."
Milos Forman's Man on the Moon is a funny, affectionate movie about a guy nobody knew, a man who spent his life devising elaborate charades behind which he hid from just about everyone. While he was alive most folks didn't know what to make of Andy Kaufman; today there's a whole new generation who never saw him at work.
That situation has been remedied thanks to Jim Carrey's amazing turn as Kaufman in this biopic. But be warned: This is not a Jim Carrey picture. This isn't a Jim Carrey performance.
In fact, Jim Carrey seems to have bailed so that the ghost of Andy Kaufman could take over his body. It takes about a minute to forget that this is a famous actor playing a role. Carrey is Kaufman. It's weird ... and very wonderful.
Less a conventional biography than a meditation on the late Kaufman's view that life is a gigantic practical joke, the film spends very little time on its subject’s childhood and personal life.
We learn that Kaufman was a neat freak who was always wiping his hands with moist towelettes and that he practiced Transcendental Meditation (though he was ejected for bringing too much unwanted publicity). On the other hand, the film manages to overlook the fact that Kaufman fathered a daughter. (With whom, one wonders.)
Basically this is a thumbnail survey of his career – from early club gigs to his breakthrough on Saturday Night Live to his long run as a regular on TV's Taxi – tailored so as to exhibit Kaufman's utterly original and weird sensibility.
Kaufman never thought of himself as a comedian. He was more of a performance artist, a prankster and dramatic provocateur who set up bizarre situations and challenged the viewer to figure out what was going on.
There was, for example, his alter ego, a boorish Las Vegas lounge singer named Tony Clifton who might show up in Kaufman's place and spend the evening insulting the audience. It took weeks before even Kaufman's manager (played here by Taxi castmate Danny DeVito) realized that Andy and Tony were one and the same.
Or the feud between Andy and professional wrestler Jerry Lawler (who portrays himself) that culminated in a memorable coffee-tossing incident on the David Letterman show. Nobody knew what to make of it. (The film makes it clear that Kaufman and Lawler were partners in an elaborate hoax in the best tradition of pro grappling.)
And then there was the college show where Kaufman reacted to audience demands for his Taxi character (he thought TV sitcoms were the lowest form of entertainment) by reading The Great Gatsby aloud from cover to cover.
Of course there was a downside to this constant role playing. When Kaufman developed the lung cancer that would soon kill him, his parents and siblings were sure this was yet another stunt. Andy had cried wolf once too often.
Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who also collaborated with Forman on The People vs. Larry Flynt, maintain that Kaufman was his work, that the only key to understanding him is to experience his comedy. And Carrey has it down perfectly.
Is this great acting? Or just wildly effective impersonation?
Hard to say. What Carrey does here looks too accurate to be called an interpretation. It's more like a painstaking re-creation. But it does have the effect of letting us see the calculating imp behind Kaufman's bug-eyed, frizzy-haired public persona.
And in the end Man on the Moon leaves us with a genuine sense of loss. What outrageousness would Kaufman have come up with had he lived?
The film has some solid supporting performances (Courtney Love as Kaufman's girlfriend, Paul Giamatti as Kaufman's behind-the-scenes co-conspirator in comedy – not to mention Letterman and the Taxi cast members in cameos), but the movie belongs to Jim Carrey.
Or should we say Andy Kaufman?
Other films in the series “Mondays with Milos”
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- September 10: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) Rated R
- September 17: Ragtime (1981) Rated PG
- September 24: Hair (1979) Rated PG
- October 1: Amadeus (1984) Rated PG
- October 8: The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996) Rated R
- October 15: Loves of a Blonde (1965) Not Rated
- October 22: Man on the Moon (1999) Rated R
- October 29: Goya’s Ghosts (2006) Rated R
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.