Director: Milos Forman
Writers: Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski
I saw this movie a long time ago, maybe in 2000 when it came out on DVD. I don’t think I really knew much about Andy Kaufman at the time, I knew the name and that he was dead and that he was a bizarre comedian, but seeing this movie 15 or so years ago was mostly my first introduction to the revolutionary comedian. I think seeing this movie then probably gave me a lot of respect for him and I eventually did seek out a lot of the things presented here thanks to youtube.
I had been wanting to re-watch this movie lately because Bob Zmuda, Kaufman’s best friend and writer, was on a recent episode of the WTF Podcast hosted by Marc Maron. It was a longer than usual episode in which Maron interviewed Zmuda, who now seems to make a living as a professional “keeper of the mythology” aka he tells the same stories about Kaufman over and over again and continues to do Kaufman’s Tony Clifton persona on stage. The whole thing seems kind of bizarre and suspect to me. It seems that Zmuda, in keep with the Kaufman tradition, still can’t just tell the straight story about certain events. As entertaining as it was I agreed with Maron where after several of the stories Zmuda was telling Maron just went “oh come on!!! COME ON!!!” knowing that these stories had evolved past the point of recalling an actual memory and had transformed into finely honed bits that helped Zmuda in the sense that he now has become a good storyteller and helps keep up the myth and mystery of Andy Kaufman.
ANYWAY…So I got a hold of Man on the Moon to re-watch it and the movie is pretty good but still, much like Zmuda’s stories, just doesn’t really dig deep into Kaufman’s life and who he seemed to really be as a person. Instead what we are treated to is a really great performance by Carrey, which is definitely the highlight of the film. The movie itself just kind of plays out like a greatest hits of Kaufman’s life. The re-enactments are all great and play out with really excellent detail, I was particularly impressed with the extras work which I can’t really think of a time I ever took notice of that. Whenever they would cut to them during the performance scenes they seemed genuinely surprised and excited by what they were watching onstage, as if it was all happening for the first time.
So because the movie is structured in a kind of greatest hits kind of way I think that kind of hurts Carrey’s performance in a way that isn’t necessarily his fault. Doing a movie about someones real life is kind of tricky. You can take the route of something like The Aviator or Invictus and just pick a period of someones life and focuses on that or you can do what Ray or Raging Bull does and try to do their whole life. Man on the Moon does an opening scene of Kaufman as a child but after that it goes from his start as a stand-up comedian until his death from lung cancer at 35. This movie I suppose tries to tackle the period of his life route, that period being the one in which he was a performer. When someone has to play a real person there, to me at least, seems to be this not totally definable line of whether it is a good performance or are they just doing an impression of someone. Carrey is a very gifted and talented performer and this movie came around when he was at his peak popularity as an outrageous comedian and he started to venture into more serious roles, or ones outside of what he was known for, in films like The Cable Guy and The Truman Show. I really enjoy Carrey in this movie and he really is the best thing about it I just wish the script had gotten a little deeper into Kaufman just as a human being.
I thought after it was over that maybe that was the point. Kaufman seemed so aloof and difficult to pin down that maybe the way the movie was meant to illustrate that, that by the end we still didn’t really feel very close to him, the way his family probably did and his friends. But if that is the case then what really is the point of this besides showcasing Carrey’s acting ability? The movie is certainly well directed by legend Milos Forman, the cast is stellar, and Carrey is on point in Kaufman form, but there is just a little something missing for the humanity of it that makes it good but not great.
It is clear that all involved have a great deal of respect for Kaufman, I know I do, so in that respect I do think it is worth watching. But a lot of my enjoyment came from seeing how well the events were recreated and not really how much the movie revealed. Seeing this so long ago without really knowing much about him was really eye opening but seeing this now and know who he was and the events that these portray there isn’t much new to get that you probably didn’t already know.