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Man on the Moon

movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Man on the Moon

Starring: Jim Carrey, Danny Devito
Director: Milos Forman
Rated: R
RunTime: 118 Minutes
Release Date: December 1999
Genres: Comedy, Drama

*Also starring: Courtney Love, Peter Bonerz, Bobby Boriello, Randall Carver, Jeff Conaway, Paul Giamatti, Marilu Henner, Judd Hirsch, Carol Kane

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Jim Carrey impersonates Andy Kaufman so deftly that the performance artist--who died of lung cancer in 1984--comes alive in all his weirdness. That Kaufman was strange, maverick, a performer who listened to the beat of his own drummer, is never challenged. Instead "Man On the Moon," an extraordinary vehicle for the actor in the lead role, shows Andy Kaufman as neither a misunderstood person nor an out- and-out looney tunes. What comes across by the time the two-hour entertainment ends is that Kaufman, who insisted that he was not a comic and did not even know what being funny meant, was intent on getting a reaction from the audience. We've all heard of entertainers who bore the pants off the audience; who are neither funny nor tragic, mesmerizing nor amusing. Andy Kaufman probably knew that the worst thing a person can be in real life or on the stage is b-o-r-i-n-g, to evoke no reaction. What mattered to him, then, was to get a reaction, even if the effect he had on his crowd was one of loathing, resistance, and disgust. Perhaps no other man in recent entertainment history pushed the envelope more in that regard or was so intent on being an original that he actually loved getting booed and hearing shouts of abhorrence as much as he adored the approving roar of the crowd.

You wouldn't know this from the opening scene. If an award were given for the most ingenious start of a picture, that would be for "Man On the Moon," hands down. To show us that Kaufman wanted to keep the audience off-guard, never knowing when he was serious or when he was messing with our minds, Carrey appears on stage with a old, table-model phonograph, rolls his eyes to the left, to the right, up and down, and says nothing for a while as the credits roll. When the credits stop rolling mid-way as the record ends, he starts the music from the beginning and the credits roll once more. He then announces that the movie is over and disappears, making this what could have been the shortest full-length film of the year. Seconds later, he re-appears to explain himself.

That's about the last time we really do understand the method behind the madness, however, since Carrey never resolves the question we all have in mind throughout the performance. We really do not know the extent of Kaufman's emotional stability. After all, he did plenty of things during his pursuit of performance art to alienate the crowd, a practice which conventional psychotherapists would call neurotic behavior indeed. What person intent on a career in show business would have the temerity to turn down a leading role on a popular TV sitcom, "Taxi," which Kaufman's agent, George Shapiro (Danny DeVito) won for him? Was he truly a man of principles who detested the very idea of sitcoms with "dumb jokes and a dead audience," or was this guy simply being self-destructive? And how could a person so soft- spoken, one who comes across as so shy that he appears to be stage-struck, impersonate a no-talent singer like the fictitious Tony Clifton? "Clifton"'s night-club act demolished the people in the lounge unlucky enough to be singled out for his devastating commentary and made others simply squirm with uneasiness, probably eager to crawl under the table.

Director Milos Forman, whose "The People vs. Larry Flynt" similarly deals with a man outside the bounds of respectable society (who made us wonder whether the title character was simply a scuzz or a person involved in upholding First Amendment freedoms), takes a chronological approach to Kaufman's life. Working with a script penned by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, Forman takes us from Kaufman's early night club acts, where he wows the audience with a spot-on impersonation of Elvis Presley, to his being scouted by hotshot Hollywood agent George Shapiro. He appears on Saturday Night Live where he has a chance to become a regular but later, in a straw vote of people calling a 900 number, is voted out by a margin of 72% to 28% Attaining a whopping five-year contract with the TV sitcom "Taxi" starring Judd Hirsch, he plays Latka Gravas, an Estonian with a heavy accent and, inciting the women in one live audience with the most outrageously sexist comments, he winds up challenging the females to wrestle with him to prove once again that men are the superior sex. This gets him a girl friend in Lynn Marguiles (Courtney Love), who takes up the challenge and loses. All the while Kaufman's greatest supporter is his writing partner, Bob Zmuda (Paul Giamatti)--who writes into an ABC special that is characteristically Dadaist and makes people squirm.

The movie cleverly pastes in some actual scenes from "Taxi" with Carrey playing the Kaufman role next to the actual stars including Judd Hirsch, Marilu Henner, Carol Kane and Christopher Lloyd and features an interview between Kaufman and a former wrestling opponent, Jerry Lawler (playing himself throughout) on an actual David Letterman show.

As a biopic "Man on the Moon" goes further than the more- or-less factual study of the association between Gilbert and Sullivan, "Topsy-Turvy." Using actual resurrected scenes to cement its authenticity, "Man on the Moon" is an amazing, frenzied, even deranged experience that will doubtless re- create a posthumous fan club for Kaufman, whose death from lung cancer is graphically re-created, including his trip to an alternative treatment clinic in the Philippines. Like the boy who cried wolf, Kaufman has a difficult time convincing even his own family and girl friend that he actually has the fatal disease: some believe that even the doctor who points out Kaufman's x-rays is a Hollywood actor and that the playful performer is again toying with everyone's head. To Jim Carrey's credit, he presents Kaufman the way he really was-- a largely bizarre person who at the very least made a lot of people uncomfortable with his antics, and yet by Carrey's charisma, he makes us love the guy, foibles and all. Now, that's acting. And this is quite the original film.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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