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USA 1999
Directed by
Milos Forman
118 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

Man On The Moon

Synopsis: The true story of Andy Kaufman (Jim Carrey) a comedian who had a bright but relatively short career during the 1970s and early 80s. Specialising in live practical jokes, usually in bad taste, he appeared regularly on Saturday Night Live and the sitcom, Taxi, before succumbing to lung cancer.

Comedy is one of the ways in which we are able to release the tensions of daily life, by verbally, and sometimes visually, incarnating our anti-social impulses. The point being, even if its manifestations are inane, violent or nasty, we allow ourselves to collude with them because we understand that they are "only a joke". But what happens when we go beyond comedy into the absurd. Enter Andy Kaufman, fellow Saturday Night Live alumnus to the likes of Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and John Belushi. With the difference that, as a Jewish comic would say: "This man is not funny. This is not a funny man". Kaufman could not tell jokes, in the conventional sense of the word, indeed,had no interest in them. His aim was not to open the release valve of laughter but the reverse, to confuse recognition and shut off every sought-for escape, in order, at least we might conjecture, to force a moment of existential sartori.

A performance artist rather than a comic, Kaufman had his historical precedents in the anti-bourgeois antics of the Surrealists, Dadaists and Futurists and prior to them, and even more closely, in the theatrics of Alfred Jarry, pataphysician and author of Ubu Roi, who aspired to substitute for the reasonableness of adulthood a pre-civilized child-like unreason and who had drunk himself to death by the age of 34 trying to do so. Kaufaman did not, according to this film anyway, use drugs to achieve his aims, but there is a comparable merging of life and art and the (unintended) sacrificing of his own life for his artistic/emotional compulsion. In that respect he was also very much a child of his counter-cultural times, the same era which gave us Hendrix and Morrison. And like them, Kaufman found himself a victim of mass popularity, condemned to play Latka, a dumb-ass character from an inane '70s sitcom, his version of Hendrix's Purple Haze or Morrison's Light My Fire.

The production team responsible for Man On The Moon involve many people close to the real Kaufman, including co-producer George Shapiro (played here by Danny De Vito), who was Kaufman's manager (and who was also partly responsible for bringing Seinfeld to the small screen) and Bob Zmuda, Kaufman's writer (played by Paul Giametti).

It is to the credit of this film however that it never tries to solve the question of who Kaufman was or what drove him, ensnaring itself in philosophical or psychological conjectures by either Kaufman or obliging third parties, the sentimentalizing trademark of the films of Robin Williams, with whom Kaufman bears some comparison. Here the writers have created a richly lambent text that never preaches or wears its heart on its sleeve but allows us to experience, at least notionally, the phenomenon that was Andy Kaufman and the inexplicability which shrouds all driven individuals.

For the first time in his career Jim Carrey drops his standard repertoire of rubbery faces and produces a character who may not be the "real" Kaufman but who merits our attention as a real person. It is his best not-strictly comedic performance.  Although Kaufman's foray into the world of wrestling occupies too much of the running time, arguably it is an essential part of the man's story and it is difficult to see how else it could have been told. Forman's direction is low-key, skilfully complementing the script, creating a film which if not itself extraordinary is about an extraordinary individual.

FYI: Courtney Love who plays Kaufman's girlfriend played Larry Flynt's wife in the Forman directed The People vs Larry Flynt (1996).

For a behind-the-scenes look the the making of Forman's film and the part played by Carrey in it see Chris Smith's entertaining 2017 documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond - The Story of Jim Carrey & Andy Kaufman Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton.




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