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The Dartmouth
February 25, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

'Moon' bottles the energy of its genius-madman subject

Before the expected plot-driven narrative of Milos Forman's "Man on the Moon" starts, Jim Carrey -- completely in character as comic genius Andy Kaufman -- steps onto the screen and speaks directly to the audience. He insists that everyone should go home, because he expects that the movie they are about to watch will be boring.

The audience, not knowing what to think of this strange opening to a biography about nonconforming and postmodern comic Andy Kaufman, does not know how to react; some audience members laugh hysterically, some laugh nervously and some are confused and do not even crack a smile.

Soon enough, Carrey disappears for a moment and reappears only to tell the audience that his previous monologue was only an attempt to induce the people who would not understand and appreciate his movie to go home. With this hilarious, self-referential, offensive and entirely unique sequence, Forman manages to encapsulate Andy's entire persona and comedic creativity in an ingenious introduction.

Who is Andy Kaufman? This is the question that "Man on the Moon" tries, quite ambitiously, to answer. The courage displayed by Forman ("Amadeus") and screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski ("The People vs. Larry Flynt," "Ed Wood") is impressive because Andy was so complex and confusing that his life is a difficult subject to tackle in a two-hour film.

Remarkably, with the extraordinary help of Carrey, Forman almost entirely succeeds in bringing enigmatic Andy to life in a way in which Andy himself would have been proud.

In short, Andy started as a seemingly unfunny comedian in the 1970s, working in small nightclubs while being heckled by unfriendly crowds. Not until talent agent George Shapiro (played by Danny DeVito) saw his controversial act did Kaufman start to make a name for himself through his appearances on college campuses across America, "Saturday Night Live," the variety show "Fridays" and "Taxi."

Based only on this simple biography, the question that one CBS critic asked me after leaving an early screening of the film -- "Who cares about Andy Kaufman?" -- is a good one. The fact that the critic failed to see the importance of Andy's life is not strange; when Andy was alive, he was decidedly underappreciated and often hated by audiences, critics and sometimes even his own peers. The genius of Andy lies in misunderstanding.

Most of the time, Andy's work was more about testing the bounds of traditional comedy, manipulating audiences to consider themselves as performers in tandem with Andy's act and blurring the line between reality and his art. Forman helps us understand this by reenacting in the movie numerous real-life events that occurred during Andy's life.

The screenwriters include Andy's most famous performances in the film, including a montage of his work on "Taxi," his reading the entire "Great Gatsby" to a college auditorium, his constant bongo-drum playing, his wrestling of women on the "Ed Sullivan Show" and his huge performance at Carnegie Hall. Carrey even does an impressive version of Andy's astonishing Elvis Presley impersonation -- the impersonation that kicked off twenty years of Elvis imitators.

Forman yields to Andy and rewards the audience by converting them into an audience completely for Andy and his antics, allowing them to react directly to the man himself as opposed to responding solely to Forman's film. Thus, he enables the audience to laugh nervously, become offended and feel bewildered by the unpredictable actions of this complex and vulnerable being.

This feat is made possible through a faultless performance by Carrey, who reportedly refused to step out of character during the filming of the movie, even when off-camera and off-set. While the Academy may not be ready to award the star of "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" an Oscar yet, they should think twice about passing him over as they did last year with "The Truman Show." Examples of Carrey's extraordinary talent appear repeatedly in "Man on the Moon." Those who have seen Andy's taped performances, specifically his appearance on David Letterman's talk show, his "Mighty Mouse" lip-syncing on "Saturday Night Live" and his work on "Taxi" will be astonished by the accuracy of Carrey's work.

Carrey's truthfulness in recreating Andy would only have been a simple feat of imitation if it were not for the deep emotional bond that Carrey deliberately and tenderly builds with the audience. Even while Carrey's character offends and often distances himself from others, he succeeds in forcing viewers to love Andy, even in times of failure and pain. The audience feels compassionate toward the comic's genius, even if at times he is difficult to understand. In addition, Danny DeVito succeeds as Andy's agent, showing an unconditional faith in his client.

Ironically, the movie's only problems are a direct result of Forman's attempt to make the entire movie the way Andy might have wanted it. The musical montage of "Taxi" is certainly too short to give the audience a taste of Andy's contribution to the show -- but, according to the film, Andy hated his work on "Taxi" and felt that sitcoms were the lowest form of humor, so this shortening may have been appropriate.

Courtney Love's work as Andy's girlfriend Lynne does not seem well integrated into the film -- it feels as though more was filmed but then left on the cutting room floor. Again though, Andy's marriage to Lynne was reportedly swift and surprising, so this may be due more to Andy's uniqueness than a plot problem. As a side-note, it is strange that Michael Richards (who appeared with Andy on "Fridays") and Tony Danza (who appeared on "Taxi") do not appear in the film.

Regardless, through its emotional power and its ability to create a lucid portrait of one of this century's genius comics, "Man on the Moon" succeeds. If only we all had such a perfect portrait of the person we hold most dear.