Man on the Moon (1999)
Directed by Milos Forman
Cast: Jim Carrey, Danny DeVito, Courtney Love, Paul Giamatti, Vincent Schiavelli, Jerry Lawler, Marilu Henner, Judd Hirsch, Carol Kane, Christopher Lloyd.
1999 118 minutes
Rated: (for profanity, sexual situations, and nudity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 24, 1999.
Comedy comes in many different forms in life. This could also be said about the humor of Jim Carrey, who began his rise to stardom with 1994's intentionally dumb (and unfunny) "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective," followed it up with that Summer's goofy comedy-fantasy "The Mask," and concluded the year with the also intentionally dumb (but, this time, very funny) "Dumb and Dumber." If humor is going to work, the setup and payoff have to be exactly right, and the material has to be strong. That's why "Ace Ventura" failed miserably in the joke arena, while the wittier "Dumb and Dumber" had me practically rolling in the aisles upon first viewing.
Andy Kaufman, who died in 1984 from lung cancer, while still only in his thirties, broke these rules. Not wanting to be a comic so much as an "entertainer," much of his routines stemmed from doing the opposite of what everyone expected him to do, and that utter unpredictability is what ultimately propelled him to stardom. A hilarious prologue opens the film with an ingenious bang, in which Andy (Jim Carrey) jokingly states to the viewer that the following movie isn't very good, and so proceeds to run the end credits at the beginning, only for the screen to go black for about 20 seconds. This is a perfect example of what he got his pleasure out of doing: toying with the audience's expectations, just to conclude with a bang that could only be described as being from the mind of a comedic genius.
Constantly insisting that he does not wish to be a comic, however, the first time we see the adult Andy, he is working at a standup comedy club. His material is offbeat, to be sure, but he is a man who is able to get his audiences involved most of the time, even if that means angering them. Any reaction was better than no reaction at all, thought Andy. One night, talent agent George Shapiro (Danny DeVito) sees Andy in one of his acts, and immediately sets up a meeting with him. Before long, he has appeared as the "musical guest" on TV's "Saturday Night Live" and, although he hates sitcoms, after a few requests are met, he becomes one of the stars of the ABC series, "Taxi," gaining a sizable fan base. Andy also has an alter ego, as an offensive, uncooperative Las Vegas lounge singer named Tony Clifton, whom many people who know Andy don't even realize it is the same person.
Milos Forman's "Man on the Moon" is a biopic that does not have a particularly strong story that pulls the happenings together into a whole, but that is because, as is, Andy Kaufman was a one-of-a-kind, eccentric person, but someone that probably did not warrant a full-length feature on him. Eventually, Andy meets Lynne (Courtney Love) and they fall in love. "Taxi" is canceled, to his delight. He has always longed to appear at Carnegie Hall, and he finally gets to live that dream. Unfortunately, because Andy was a man constantly trying to misconstrue the truth, when he finally is diagnosed with lung cancer, initially everyone believes it is just another one of his pranks.
"Man on the Moon" is a fascinating film that, while not always dramatically sound, never stops being an entertaining picture. Forman and screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski never stray far from Andy (come to think of it, he may very well be in every scene), as it follows him from one thing in his life to the next. Nothing that happens is extraordinary or surprising, particularly if you are familiar with Andy or have even seen the theatrical trailer, which is effective but pretty much a 2 1/2-minute version of the film.
Instead, what pulls the viewer in so deeply is Jim Carrey himself. Whereas 1998's "The Truman Show" was a step in the right direction towards a serious role, there were moments when his usual routine would break through. In "Man on the Moon," Carrey embodies the life and soul of Andy so completely and convincingly that it is almost like watching the real Andy, resurrected. A tou r de force portrayal, Carrey is deserving, and should rightfully garner, an Oscar nomination for his work here, which is superior to anything else he has done on film.
Courtney Love, a surprisingly talented actress who was outstanding in Forman's last film, 1996's "The People Vs. Larry Flynt," is given a slight role this time around, as Lynne, Andy's true love later in his life. The writing severely botches this subplot as it feels rushed and uneven. In their first scene together, Lynne asks Andy if he is always such an asshole, and in the next scene, they are going out on a date and discussing traveling to Memphis to get married. Andy may not be like other guys, but Lynne loves him--is apparently attracted to his intentional multiple personalities. The mild truthfulness that stems from Lynne is thanks solely to Love, who does everything she can within the confines of the noticeably limited role.
If "Man on the Moon" is an intriguing film from start to finish, the only really powerful and dramatically impressive moment comes in the recreation of Andy Kaufman's funeral, which reunites most of the cast of characters, including some of the costars of "Taxi," such as Marilu Henner, Christopher Lloyd, and Carol Kane. This scene is tonally flawless, and builds up momentum to become an emotional powerhouse, signifying the grief that the people who knew Andy were feeling, even while he proved after death that what he truly was was a good-natured, caring human being. "Man on the Moon" is a respectable tribute to the memory of Andy Kaufman, but is nowhere near perfect, and in the confines of staying true to Andy's life, it probably could never be.
©1999 by Dustin Putman