Tenk You Veddy Much
Behind every great man is a great love of women's breasts. You might conclude as much if you buy wholly into director Milos Forman's previous efforts as a big-screen biographer of real-life pariahs: 1984's Amadeus and 1996's The People vs. Larry Flynt. Especially in the latter, Forman's subjects back their die-hard principles of free expression and equal justice with a deep, abiding loyalty to the female form, an Almighty Hourglass that delivers them from mediocrity and inspires them to heroic heights of creativity and resolve. Or maybe they just really, really like to get laid. Either way, these guys run deeper than their legends might let on, and, in a way, that's the whole point of each film.
And then there's Andy Kaufman, a dead American comic whose peculiar genius is hung on impressions of Elvis Presley, farcical wrestling, and a broad immigrant caricature with all the sensuality of a file cabinet. Muse or no muse, Man on the Moon appears willing to place Kaufman right alongside Mozart as one of history's great cultural subversives--another misunderstood prodigy if not quite a full-blown martyr. But in this case, Forman leaves us hungry for a friend, a lover, a wife, a pet, anyone who can lend some lasting insight into the soul of this unapologetically enigmatic main character. As it stands, the film is more career retrospective than biopic, reprising a host of public moments with only a paltry handful of glimpses behind the curtain.
Which isn't to say that we don't encounter plenty of the people who figured into Kaufman's rise. We meet George Shapiro (terminally likable Danny DeVito), the agent and career advisor who nobly helped him navigate his way into the American comedic consciousness. We note Bob Zmuda (earnest sideman Paul Giamatti), Kaufman's pal and writing partner, who co-created such bold characters as the ill-tempered Vegas lounge lizard Tony Clifton. And we get ever-so-vaguely acquainted with Lynn Margulies (a refreshingly unaffected Courtney Love), whose marriage to Kaufman comes across less as a life-changing bond than a mere brush with conventional living. We don't doubt that each of these players made more than a fleeting impact on Kaufman's too-short life, but the script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (they also co-wrote Flynt) treats them mostly as narrative necessities with little or nothing to reveal about our hero's inner core.
So it's all riding on Jim Carrey, then, huh? Umpteen interviews with the makers and backers of the film have cited the uncanny nature of Carrey's leading turn, how his keen mastery of Kaufman's every mannerism has stunned even the late comic's parents and confidants. No doubt the actor's months of careful study and a qualified makeup crew do a swell job of resurrecting the "on" Andy. Carrey's greatest service here, surely, is his reverent re-creation of Kaufman's finest bits: the belligerent Clifton, the Mighty Mouse theme, his infamously unusual gigs at Carnegie Hall.
But if it's the bits you want, a little legwork and a VCR will get you all that and more. Carrey's (and Forman's) real challenge is to revive and expose the private Andy, the Andy who deliberately alienated his TV costars, the Andy whose devotion to transcendentalism was ceaseless, the Andy whose bent exploits made notorious waves throughout his personal relationships. On this count, Carrey falls short, and, in a way, he's doomed from the start. How can an actor expect to get inside a soul that was so closely guarded in real life? What naked truths can he discern about a guy whose uncompromising mission on earth was to blur reality and artifice? Not many, especially when you're at the mercy of a surface-skating script and a veteran director with an increasingly vague sense of purpose. "Who are you trying to entertain?" Shapiro asks in one scene. "The audience or yourself?" It's the film's most compelling question, and it's forgotten as quickly as it's fired.
All that said, Man on the Moon does manage one of the more rarefied feats among big-budget biographical sketches by inspiring a fundamental curiosity about its subject. Yeah, we're left hanging in terms of what really made Kaufman tick. But that disappointment reflects a credible sense that this is an artist worth asking about, a man with more to his legacy than Taxi reruns and R.E.M.-authored tribute songs. The phase-by-phase, gag-by-gag recounting of his career highlights and low points opens the door unto some still-relevant questions about the physics of American comedy. At a time when easy riffs on race, politics, and counterculture were all you needed to land on The Tonight Show, Kaufman thrived on a daring diet of endurance, ambiguity, discomfort, disruption, chaos, and high concept. Today Tom Green's asshole antics don't seem nearly so intrepid when held up against Kaufman's misogynist wrestling shtick, nor does SNL's precarious, 20-plus-year holding pattern. (It's a fitting twist to see so many of the comedian's former co-workers--Lorne Michaels, Dave Letterman, the Taxi cast--playing themselves in Man on the Moon.)
Accordingly, the film begins with a gag that finds Carrey channeling Kaufman directly and, rather tellingly, in the present tense: "Hallo, I am Andy," he says in broken Latka-ese, "and dees ees my movie." The next few minutes play like just the sort of medium-manipulating bit you'd expect from Kaufman, and it's enough to make you wonder if he and Man on the Moon co-producer Zmuda actually cooked it up together back in their heyday. Later, as the closing credits roll for a second time, we're prompted to consider that maybe, just maybe, Kaufman followed through on his well-documented notions to fake his own death. As a movie ending, it's hokey and a little trite; as a tribute to Kaufman's aesthetic, it's perfectly apropos.
For his part, Carrey seems eager to ride "the role he was born to play" as far as it will take him and then some. At a recent press event to promote the film, he dove into a "spontaneous" grapple with a Tony Clifton look-alike, reinforcing previous claims that he borrowed elements of Kaufman's method throughout the movie's production. If his irksomely immodest comments at last year's Oscars (over being snubbed for his role in The Truman Show) can be taken at all literally, he's hungry for a Best Actor statue. Dustin Hoffman was in the running for that honor back in '75, having set the portrait-of-an-edgy-comic standard in Bob Fosse's Lenny--and if that turn wasn't a winner, neither is Carrey's. Supposing the academy might indulge him anyway, it'd be the least that the skilled but not quite deserving Carrey could do to subvert that honor in the spirit of his hero: A simple "Tenk you veddy much" would do.
Man on the Moon is playing at area theaters.
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