Man On The Moon

I have never seen Jim Carrey in a good movie.  I have nothing against the comedian who, I think, is one of Canada’s funniest exports.  A master impressionist, a quick-witted improvisationalist, and a very funny stand-up comedian, I just don’t think he’s found the right material for his talents.  Now I haven’t seen all of the movies he’s made (I still have some catching up to do) but of the 16 I have screened not one of them entertained me.  Man On The Moon is a case in point.
Released in 1999, Carrey plays Andy Kaufman in this very disappointing Milos Forman biopic.  I originally screened it on tape on July 21, 2000.  I had a really difficult time getting into this movie and wondered whether I gave it a fair shake.  I remember being really annoyed and depressed after seeing the movie.  Let’s face it.  Sometimes, your emotions get the better of you or perhaps this wasn’t the best day to screen this particular movie.  So, I screened it the next day, July 22, and realized that I just didn’t care for this movie, as you’ll discover in my previously unpublished review.
As I write this, I’m reminded of an appearance Siskel & Ebert made on Late Show With David Letterman on February 10, 1994.  Both were asked if they had any run-ins with actors they’d criticized on their show.  Gene mentioned that he had been knocking Robby Benson in a number of films (which prompted Letterman to goof on him) and that when they passed each other one day Benson didn’t make eye contact.  Letterman followed-up and asked him if this bothered him.  Gene replied, "I don’t care.  I want to have the right to like his next movie."
I feel the same way about Jim Carrey.  Surely, there is one movie of his, possibly more, that I haven’t seen that I might actually enjoy.  I hold out hope.

MAN ON THE MOON: An Assessment
By Dennis Earl

Film has one big limitation. Even though it is capable of taking us anywhere we want to go, introducing us to people we will never meet, and telling stories that force us to face our worst fears and unfulfilled wishes, it cannot replace reality. A real-life experience cannot be substituted for a cinematic dramatization. This is one of the biggest problems I had with MAN ON THE MOON, a 1999 film based on the life of Andy Kaufman. Jim Carrey does a masterful job capturing Andy’s quirky mannerisms, like his tendency to bulge his eyes out and his constant hesitation. And he does a very good job mimicking his various characters. Every look he has in the film is perfect. However, if you pay close attention to the overall performance, you’ll notice that there’s a missing ingredient: heart. Without capturing the chuberic/devilish charm of the real Andy, Carrey’s performance is nothing more than a skillful imitation, a soulless characterization you neither love, hate nor understand. This is why he didn’t receive an Academy Award nomination. (He did win a Golden Globe, though.)

The key to understanding Kaufman’s drive for success is mainly absent here, with the exception of 2 good scenes early on in the film. Both of them focus on Andy’s childhood. In the first one, Andy’s father walks in on his son who is facing the wall broadcasting an imaginary sports program with his special guest "Mr. Bear", his teddy bear. He tells him to find a real audience, since he’s not going to go outside and play sports like the rest of the neighbourhood kids. So, in the next scene, he grabs his adorable sister from her room and takes her to his room where she participates in his animal song, gleefully making the noises of the animals Andy sings about.

That scene leads to another performance of the song, at a local comedy club, many years later. (The point of this transition is to imply that Andy hasn’t grown up. Note the absence of other scenes from his childhood, especially the teen years. There is no inner child when there is no outer adult.) However, this particular audience is not amused. They seem bored and annoyed. (The angry ones have already left.) After the show, the club owner fires Andy, even though he was never paid. "There is no show without the business," he explains. He calls Andy’s performance "Amateur Hour".

Andy manages to find another audience at the famous Improv club, where he unleashes Foreign Man (which bombs) and an Elvis impersonation (which inspires some people to give him a standing ovation). Backstage, Andy meets agent George Shapiro (Danny DeVito) who wants to represent him. George gets him a gig on the first edition of a new show called Saturday Night Live where he lip syncs to exactly one line of the Mighty Mouse theme (twice): "Here I come to save the day!" It’s a big hit.

Andy is then offered a part on an ABC sitcom called Taxi. He won’t do it because sitcoms feel fake to him. (Only "dead people" enjoy it, he says.) George convinces him to take the job because he’ll never get another chance like this again. After some demands are met, Andy accepts the role of Latka Gravas, a goofy mechanic who is basically a more straightforward (and less manipulative) Foreign Man. He hates the experience thoroughly. In his mind, he has lost the control to push the buttons of his audience. To him, their reactions to Latka are unreal, contrived even. And they’re limited to laughter. The audience knows too much. So, he wages a personal campaign to get himself out of his 5-year contract with the show. (Having his own TV special scrapped by the same network also fuels his venom.)

Enter Tony Clifton, a Las Vegas lounge lizard who spends more time bullying the audience than singing to them. Andy slips into the character on the set (or so we think) and brings along two paid prostitutes to add to his character’s already sleazy presence. After he’s fired by telephone, he’s dragged out by security kicking and screaming. However, it’s not Andy they just threw out. It’s Bob Zmuda (Paul Giamatti A.K.A. Pig Vomit from 1997’s PRIVATE PARTS), Andy’s longtime writer and fellow performer.

Andy realizes another dream when he becomes a full-fledged pro wrestling heel, defeating all of the females who dare to take his InterGender Championship belt away from him, including Lynne (Courtney Love), who later becomes his girlfriend. This leads to a well-publicized feud between Andy and the most popular wrestler in Memphis, Jerry "The King" Lawler. It was the most amazing series of stunts the real Andy Kaufman ever pulled off, culminating in that famous appearance on Late Night With David Letterman in 1982 (which is re-created with the real Letterman, Paul Shaffer and his band, and, of course, Lawler himself).

Unfortunately, Andy is soon dealt two devastating blows. He is diagnosed with a rare form of lung cancer (he never did drugs, by the way) and he’s been voted off SNL. The audience is tired of being his collective wind-up toy, purposely provoked into expressing the emotions that only Andy and Bob Zmuda find hilarious, a point not lost on George who tells them so. When Andy informs his inner circle about the cancer, there’s some skepticism. (Even his two siblings think it’s a con. After all, the doctor they spoke to wasn’t wearing the right shoes. And he was being treated at Cedars-Sinai, a Hollywood hospital).

MAN ON THE MOON was directed by Milos Forman and you would think he would be the right choice for this subject since some of his past films, as Roger Ebert once wrote, "have included AMADEUS and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, both about inspired misfits with the courage of their eccentricity." But the movie is slow-moving, not very funny and most surprisingly, not very dramatic. Many of these bits were much more entertaining when the real Andy Kaufman was involved. No matter how good Jim Carrey is at duplicating the sounds and movements of Kaufman, he can’t find the heart of the character and express Andy in basic human terms so that we can care about him not only as a cheeky provocateur but also, as an ordinary guy with all the layers of irony peeled away, leaving the core of his humanity naked for all to see.

However, I did like a few of the performances. DeVito is effective as Andy’s agent, acting sometimes as a father figure, encouraging and discouraging his antics throughout the film. Paul Giamatti is convincing, too, as Bob, although he should’ve had more scenes to develop his character. He seems more enigmatic than Andy. I also liked seeing the real Jerry Lawler here. He gives the best "self-performance" in the movie. Vincent Schiavelli (GHOST) does a good job, as well, playing one of the ABC executives who constantly talks down to Andy, truly believing this is the best way to get him to compromise his material.

But we could’ve been spared Courtney Love since her character truly is a prop, not a fully-realized character. It’s just a standard girlfriend role. There’s no chemistry between her and Carrey, anyway.

Andy Kaufman’s approach to performing was not unlike the Theater Of The Absurd, the innovative New York theatre troupe that inspired Jim Morrison of The Doors to artificially provoke the audience into feeling real emotions during their concerts, one of which was the infamous Miami concert in 1969. Kaufman wasn’t interested in just getting straight laughs. That limited the emotional response of the audience. Joy wasn’t enough. What he really wanted to do was inspire the audience to feel EVERY emotion possible throughout his performance: joy as well as anger, fear as well as excitement, pain as well as release. The less the audience knew they were being manipulated, the more honest their response would be. If only Carrey’s performance evoked those feelings in me. I just didn’t feel anything but annoyed.

As for the Tony Clifton character, it’s hard to believe that in the last scene in the movie, after annoying every audience he faced previously, that a bad rendition of I Will Survive would have them whooping in the aisles. It’s a false happy ending that leaves you feeling more annoyed and rather perplexed.

I saw this movie twice on home video in 2 days. I was thoroughly depressed with the first screening. I felt cheated, manipulated beyond reason and I found it difficult to settle down and focus on the performances and the re-creations of Andy’s most famous material. When I saw the film again the following morning, I was less annoyed, but I still found the movie to be a disappointment. And the source of that disappointment is Jim Carrey. This movie can only work if Andy can find the charm in even the most negative of characters. But Tony Clifton has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. He is completely charmless. Everyone may love an old-fashioned villain but if he doesn’t know how to seduce an audience with his "good" side, the con is dead.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, May 4, 2006
1:24 a.m.
Published in: on May 4, 2006 at 1:38 am  Leave a Comment  

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