The comedian Andy Kaufman was perpetually aware that a performance was not
just a piece of material, but an event, happening in a time and place. He
wanted his audiences to have an experience; to know they were in the room,
watching somebody putting on a show. People didn't always applaud his
outrageousness as they watched it, but he always got laughs somehow. Maybe
they would laugh AT him. Or chuckle afterward, in disbelief. Or make their
friends crack up by telling them what he did. The sheer lunacy and audacity
of his acts was hilarious; maybe not first-hand, but certainly in concept,
when you stopped to think about them.
After all, Kaufman is the guy who once went onstage, read "The Great Gatsby"
in its entirety, then walked off. Whose act once consisted of standing in
silence through the "Mighty Mouse" theme song, except for the "Here I come to
save the day!" line, which he'd mouth along to. And who, to close a concert
in the gigantic Carnegie Hall, took all the spectators out for milk and
cookies. Kaufman was always pulling gags you had to experience, even if that
required you to be the butt of them. When he died of cancer in 1984, many
thought it was just another practical joke.
There are of course those who hail him as a genius. His detractors find him
confounding. Future generations can make up their minds by watching MiloŇ°
Forman's "Man on the Moon", a film which some have described, unfairly, as a
sort of Greatest Hits compilation reel. Yes, the film has a straightforward
structure in chronological order, and is mostly made up of its hero's onstage
appearances. But it is therefore a faithful and successful presentation of a
very interesting character, leaving us to love or hate him at will. The
surprising thing is that so many of Kaufman's antics are amusing in
themselves, and not just as ideas. This is a very funny picture.
It's also a deeply moving screen biography, following years of success right
through to times of pain, and made by some of the masters of the bio-pic
genre. Forman, the director, was also the helmsman on the Oscar-winning
Mozart epic "Amadeus" (1984), as well as "The People Vs. Larry Flynt" (1996),
a movie about the controversial publisher of "Hustler" magazine. The
screenwriters, Scott Alexander and Larry Karszewski, wrote both "Flynt" and
"Ed Wood" (1994). And Jim Carrey is a terrific choice for the starring role.
It's his second performance as a dramatic lead, and he proves that his turn
in "The Truman Show" was no flash in the pan, letting his eyes and voice
become possessed by his character. His appearance always seems a little odd,
but that's kinda the point. Anybody who knew Andy Kaufman will tell you that
he was always "on"; his mind was always pushing something new up his sleeve,
he made you keep your guard up. "There is no real you," one of the characters
tells him. That character is his wife.
Of course the essential problem with any film about this man is that it
explains somebody who refused to be explained. Figuring out what Kaufman was
up to was part of the fun. Then again, on his deathbed he did ask for a movie
to be made about his life. Maybe he did think it was important to be
understood. He just thought that speaking for himself would be a cop-out.
Copyright © 2000 UK Critic