Today I watched Milos Forman’s Man on the Moon (1999)
Andy Kaufman was a very strange person, a comedian who fervently denied being such a thing. He really was a performance artist dedicated to getting a reaction, any reaction, out of people. This film chronicles much of his life and work in a highly fictionalized manner that seeks to deliver the essence of his work as much as it tries to identify the human heart behind his act. It follows his rise in the club circuit, his tumultuous T.V. appearances, and his legendary feud with Pro-Wrestler Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler, all the way to his tragic death which was thought by many to have been a hoax.
The film does a great job at translating Kaufman’s humour to a film, largely thanks to the inspired performance from Jim Carrey who plays Andy. It also does a good job at presenting some idea of who Kaufman may have been beneath the act, though the penchant of the film to indulge in the tall tales surrounding him hampers some of those elements. It presents Kaufman as a very distant person who never really could open up to people, instead engaging with the world through layer upon layer of comedic performance and practical jokes. The film never really gets to the man behind this, but perhaps that is the point and perhaps the image of Kaufman as an unknowable enigma is the most approachable one he ever presented.
While Carrey does a great job in the lead role, the supporting cast really elevates the work. Many of the actors are playing themselves or knew Kaufman in real life before this film, as did Danny DeVito who plays manager George Shapiro. The eternally underrated Paul Giamatti also plays a major role as Kaufman’s friend, writer, and fellow prankster Bob Zmuda and matches Carrey’s offbeat energy at every moment. Milos Forman even gets a good performance out of an oddly cast Courtney Love who would seem very out of place if not for the excellent work of those around her. And of course if you know my love of wrestling you know I marked out to the appearance of “good ol’ JR” Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler playing themselves, the latter of which gets to re-enact his classic fight with Kaufman on the set of David Letterman (who also appears as himself.)
This is a wonderful film if you enjoy the works of Kaufman like I do, which unfortunately clouds my judgement about whether this would be an interesting film if you were not already a fan. I think it does a good job of expressing his comedic style in a manner that tries to enlighten those unfamiliar with his work without flat out explaining the joke, but I wonder if that is really enough. That being said I would rather the film appeal to the fans and turn away those without an understanding of his works, as the opening gag does in a rather succinct way. This is a wonderfully offbeat and funny film that is also dramatic in equal measure, expressing the highest highs and lowest lows along a fascinating career of one of the most important figures in humour and more importantly anti-humour. 5/5