Man On The Moon

on December 22, 1999 by Wade Major
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   Leave it to the screenwriters of "Ed Wood" and "The People Vs. Larry Flynt" to find narrative structure in the equally offbeat life of Andy Kaufman, the late comedian whose cryptic eccentricity oftentimes left audiences more bewildered than entertained. Following the same trajectory as their two previous biopics, writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski--along with their "Flynt" director, Milos Forman--paint Kaufman as a kind of inadvertent and tragic genius, sharing with Wood and Flynt the proclivity to be his own worst enemy at the most inopportune times.
   Featuring a very impressive Jim Carrey as Kaufman, and co-starring Kaufman's one-time "Taxi" co-star Danny DeVito as Kaufman's manager George Shapiro, the film rapidly charts Kaufman's rise and demise, whisking viewers through the major beats of his life: the early years as a standup comic, his overnight success as the squeaky-voiced immigrant man-child Latka on television's "Taxi," the controversial television appearances, the incendiary live shows, the humiliating wrestling matches with women, the brawling rivalry with real-life wrestler Jerry Lawler and the bizarre alter ego of lounge singer Tony Clifton. It is a fascinating, whirlwind tour through the life of a true Hollywood enigma--a man whose relative genius and madness are still debated to this day. That Carrey is able to capture such nuances and play Kaufman for what he was--alternately funny and despicable, a gifted comic with sadistic inclinations toward his audiences that too often got the best of him--is the film's great strength. Like the boy who cried wolf, his brilliantly deceptive gags eventually run aground; after having pulled the rug out from under his fans once too often, when he is stricken with terminal cancer, no one actually believes him.
   What is frustrating is that beyond simply presenting documented events in a concise, narrative format, the film can't seem to cast any light on the questions that still remain. Neither the writers nor Forman nor Carrey nor the film's producers--including real-life Kaufman friends DeVito and Shapiro--really seem to know Kaufman any better than did his fans, which is to say hardly at all. By film's end, he remains an enigma, making Carrey's performance sometimes stronger on mimicry than acting. When DeVito's Shapiro questions whether or not Kaufman is a genius or insane, later admonishing him Kaufman to decide whether or not he's more interested in entertaining the audience or himself, he is voicing the feelings of the audience--concerns which the film never satisfactorily addresses.
   Nonetheless, the film does offer an illuminating dissection of Kaufman's comedic style and philosophy, if not an illumination of the man himself. And with numerous Hollywood personalities and celebrities playing themselves (with the notable and obvious exception of DeVito as Shapiro), what the story lacks in depth, it at least partially makes up for in pop culture kitsch. Non-cameo supporting performances range from a passable Courtney Love as Kaufman's girlfriend to Paul Giamatti in a sensational turn as Kaufman's behind-the-scenes partner and best friend Bob Zmuda. Starring Jim Carrey, Danny DeVito, Courtney Love and Paul Giamatti. Directed by Milos Forman. Written by Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski. Produced by Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher. A Universal release. Biographical Comedy. Rated R for language and brief sexuality/nudity. Running time: 118 min
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