Starring: Jim Carrey, Danny DeVito, Courtney Love, Paul Giamatti, Vincent Schiavelli, Jerry Lawler
Director: Milos Forman
Andy Kaufman was as enigmatic as a comic can get. The off-beat performer was born in 1949, but died of lung cancer in 1984. This bio-pic, starring Jim Carrey in the lead role, charts his career from his discovery by manager, George Shapiro (DeVito), to his untimely death.
After showing the young Kaufman performing to his kid sister in the 1950s, we fast forward to see him performing the club scene with his curious act. His future manager, Shapiro, sees something special in him and gets him a spot on Saturday Night Live, followed by convincing the resistant Kaufman to take a role in brand new sit-com, ‘Taxi’, as a Lithuanian driver called Latko. But Kaufman is unhappy with the direction of his career, and challenges the TV-comedy niche that he has been pushed into by becoming a wrestling celebrity. He creates the “intergender wrestling championship” and wrestles women around the country before starting a legendary feud with Southern Champion, Jerry Lawler. The film also touches on his relationship with best friend Bob (Giamatti – “Big Mommas House”, “Negotiator”, “The Truman Show”), his girlfriend Lynne (Love – “People Vs Larry Flint”) and his family, but never delves very much into them.
Kaufman was a unique talent. And after seeing the movie, if it is a faithful recreation of his abilities, I use the term ‘talent’ lightly. There was hardly any point in the movie where I was amused (not to be confused with how entertained I was by Carrey’s brilliant performance). Kaufman insisted that he wasn’t a comedian but rather he just wanted to be ‘funny’ – he entertained himself more than his audience. A number of the performances portrayed in the movie showed him to be arrogant and smug, including one time when he entertained a college audience by reading verbatim from ‘The Great Gatsby’ rather than do the Taxi-character that they were calling for.
The main problem with the movie is the complete un-evenness of the picture. In the space of 20 minutes, Kaufman goes from failed club-performer to star of one of TVs biggest sit-coms. It makes for a very unbelievable storyline and leaves the movie lacking credibility at a crucial time. Things improve in the second-half, but the lack of emphasis on Kaufman the person, rather than the character, means that we don’t see just how much his life means to him, how important his girlfriend or his family are. Due to the development of his wrestling persona, which saw him flagrantly bad-mouth women and southern people in a very gross-mannered way, his public image has gone from lovable oaf to loathed monster. When he reports that he has contracted lung-cancer, he struggles to convince his friends and family that it is true. Director, Milos Forman (“People Vs Larry Flint”, “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest”), then tries to rush through this period to show us that Kaufman actually does value life and does value those around him despite his self-centered ways. It’s too late, the damage is done.
“Man on the Moon” is wonderful for the performances of DeVito, Love, Giamatti and, especially, Carrey. But there is little else to recommend it. Forman could have given us more to like about the central character and have us feel sympathy for him, but his brash and egocentric mannerisms, true as they might have been, leave us feeling cold at his fate later in life. As a biography it is probably quite loyal to the subject matter…which is probably it’s biggest failing.