Man on the Moon
Universal, 1999
Directed by Milos Forman


By Jason Rothman

When it came to the humor of Andy Kaufman, the joke was always on the audience. Or, more precisely, the joke was on the segment of the audience that didn't know what they were seeing was all a joke -- and with Andy, even those who thought the comic was pulling their leg could still never quite be sure. Man on the Moon, the new movie about Kaufman's life, should captivate both those who got the joke and those who didn't.

Director Milos Forman gave us one of the great film chronicles of a genius at work with his movie version of Amadeus. With Man on the Moon, he gives us a profound, hilarious and moving portrait of another genius -- a genius of deception. Whether he was doing his European Man character or taking on the role of Bad Guy wrestler, Andy Kaufman spent his short career putting people on. In doing so, he remained an enigma. You never knew who the real Andy was, and Forman's movie suggests that Andy wasn't so sure who he really was either.

Jim Carrey plays Kaufman and there's no better way to describe his performance other than to say that he basically channels the late comedian. Seriously, it's scary. Carrey not only captures Kaufman's "normal" speaking voice with eerie accuracy, he also does several of Kaufman's old routines and characters with letter-perfect virtuosity. He doesn't just do a perfect impression -- he does about five different perfect impressions. While Carrey bears almost no physical resemblance to Kaufman, the rubber-faced Canadian manages to do something with his eyes and his smile that, without prosthetics, totally captures Kaufman's essence. This may be the greatest impersonation of a real person ever in a Hollywood Biopic. If Jim Carrey doesn't win the Oscar for best actor, then they shouldn't bother giving the award out this year.

Adding to the realism is a cadre of Kaufman's old friends and associates, appearing as themselves. Most of the original cast of Kaufman's sitcom, Taxi, return to recreate moments from the show (the only person absent is Tony Danza). Kaufman's old co-star Danny DeVito appears -- but not as himself. He plays Kaufman's manager, George Shapiro (in this film's version of reality, there apparently is no Danny DeVito). Wrestler Jerry Lawler, David Letterman and Lorne Michaels also play themselves. Paul Giamatti is well cast as Kaufman's writer and sidekick, Bob Zmuda, and Courtney Love is -- get this -- cute and sweet as Andy's very understanding girlfriend.

But the realism of the film also stands as a contrast to Kaufman's act -- everything he did was in one way or another, a hoax -- and the facade often extended off stage as well. If the movie has a flaw, it's that we don't see enough of the "real" Andy Kaufman -- we never really get to know the real man, the puzzle is never solved -- but maybe that's the point. The film suggests that even Kaufman's closest friends never knew what was real, and what was an act. Nowhere is that reflected greater than in the scenes after Kaufman contracts a terminal disease. It's the ultimate, tragic example of the boy who cried wolf -- no one believes Andy is really sick. Kaufman's death becomes the punchline to a long, sad, ironic joke.

The story may end on a bittersweet note, but along the way it's a funny, upbeat delight. The tale of Andy Kaufman is also the tale of an uncompromising artist, a true original, taking on the system. The movie also engages in some Kaufman-style trickery of it's own -- from a "fake ending" gag at the beginning of the movie, to a wink-wink final shot -- the movie is a tribute to Kaufman in more ways than one.

(c) Copyright 2000

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