July 20, 2019

Man on the Moon (1999)
Grade: 61/100

Director: Milos Forman
Stars: Jim Carrey, Danny DeVito, Paul Giamatti

What it's about. A biography of eccentric comedian Andy Kaufman. Kaufman (Jim Carrey) has a varied act that confuses and challenges audiences, consisting of characters, imitations, and repetitive bits. Kaufman's potential is recognized early by talent agent George Shapiro (Danny DeVito), and by Kaufman's partner in comedic crime, Bob Zmuda (Paul Giamatti).

Kaufman learns quickly what bits the audience enjoys: the innocent East European foreigner, the innocent bongo player chanting nonsense, the Vegas-era Elvis. But he would test the audience by breaking taboos, or by doing boring things. If he was booed too early, he would "punish" the audience by reading an entire novel onstage, or singing endless versus of "100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall."

But Kaufman was undeniably unique, and that made him a star during his 1975 to 1982 heyday. He was part of the ensemble sitcom "Taxi", he made numerous appearances on "Saturday Night Live" and Letterman, and extended his anarchist notoriety by wresting women and feuding with Jerry Lawler, a fixture of Memphis wrestling.

Kaufman acquires a love interest, Lynn Marguiles (Courtney Love), who, like Zmuda and Shapiro, stick with him until the end. Kaufman, a non-smoker, dies at the young age of 35 from lung cancer.

How I felt about it. Kaufman is mostly known only to Americans born during the mid-1950s to mid-1960s. Those who remember Kaufman recognize that Carrey was ideal to play him. Not only is there a physical resemblance, but Carrey, like Kaufman, is a comedian with symptoms of dissociative personality disorder. Carrey, though, always wanted to please audiences. Kaufman just wanted a reaction, even if it was frustration or outright anger.

Perhaps there was no real Andy Kaufman, just a collection of alter egos. If a real Andy existed, it was a Lenny Bruce type who sought to push the limits. It is easy to imagine that Kaufman was relieved when "Taxi" was finally cancelled, so that he could regain full artistic control of his persona.

Man on the Moon captures all of this well. One actually feels sorry for the cast of "Taxi", reunited here, as they struggle to retain their professionalism in the face of Kaufman's antics, particularly when he arrives at the set in disguise as another character.

Director Forman takes minor liberties with Kaufman's chronology. The Lynne Marguiles character is unconvincing, if only because Courtney's love interest role is similar to that in The People vs. Larry Flynt. Shapiro, Zmuda, and Marguiles show endless patience with Kaufman's legendary unpredictable and alienating behavior. But these issues do not compromise the movie, or make it less engrossing to watch.

How others will see it. Man on the Moon was a box office bust, demonstrating once again that audiences want a manic "Fire Marshall Bill" Jim Carrey instead of a dramatic actor, even when he is playing a comedian.

Nonetheless, the role as Andy Kaufman allowed Carrey to win his second consecutive Golden Globe Best Actor award. He had won the year before for The Truman Show. Carrey has never been nominated for an Oscar.

At imdb.com, Man on the Moon has a high 117K user votes, ensuring that the film, along with "Taxi" reruns, will be the principal cultural legacy of Andy Kaufman. The user ratings are highest (7.7 out of 10) among viewers under 30, who may identify with Kaufman's nonconformist and anarchical tendencies. These viewers have no living memory of Kaufman. Viewers over 45, who might remember Kaufman, give the film a somewhat lower grade (7.1 out of 10). They may be alienated by Kaufman's antics. Or perhaps they simply wanted to see Jim Carrey as "funny" instead of the inscrutable Kaufman.