Man on the Moon
In his short life and abbreviated career Andy Kaufman turned the idea of comedy on its head: his comedy was designed not to be funny. He did not hope to make us laugh, he never told jokes as we know them, there was no 'routine' to his routines. What he did, and without, I think, ever really being able to express it, was explore the nature of wit, in the sense of a quickness of mind. All comedy contains at least some unexpected juxtapositon of ideas and images -- it's what makes punchlines work -- but for Kaufman that unexpectedness was everything. If you were open to the unexpected you loved him, this alien creature who'd landed in your life and your brain; if not, he was just an alien creature.
And that alien creature was not an act, not some sophisticated construct put on over a 'normal' human skin. A few months ago Kaufman's writing partner and friend Bob Zmuda was interviewed on NPR's "Fresh Air," and described Kaufman's own fear of his alter ego Tony Clifton, the lounge lizard character for whom no insult was too offensive to use, no cruelty too great to inflict. He would call Zmuda and say, "Tony's coming to town...." and all his friends would get fair warning that for some indeterminate period of time the gentle Andy they knew would be the viciousTony they hated.
One thing Kaufman did before his death in 1984 was force everyone in the business to rethink his or her own work. It was providential that he came along at exactly the moment 'Saturday Night Live' was starting, because it gave him a venue to work in and an audience that wasn't just looking for more of the old stuff. Even if that audience didn't get it, there was always an open, receptive place for him. But of course his demons could never let him rest, never let him repeat anything. He hated being Latka on 'Taxi,' because he had to stay in character. And so he went on, and on, to wrestling women, to challenging Jerry Lawler, and to his death from lung cancer at thirty-five.
Now, fifteen years later, Milos Forman has made "Man on the Moon," the story of Kaufman's life, and it's a brilliant film. It doesn't attempt a psychoanalytic post-mortem, it doesn't try to make him more conventionally 'funny' than he was. With a script by the team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who had written "The People vs. Larry Flynt" for Forman, "Man on the Moon" simply presents us with Kaufman, gives us this unnerving, breathtaking creature who insisted on a life that was unlike almost any other. And what makes the film work is an astounding performance by Jim Carrey, who does not 'play' Kaufman but inhabits him, lives him, makes us confront him as though he were still alive.
Carrey has always been an actor with mannerisms that could overwhelm his wit and destroy his comedy: the leering, full-toothed grin of Ace Ventura, the self-consciousness of his work in "Liar Liar." But here he triumphs. His Andy Kaufman is not what we could describe conventionally as an expert performance, because he has taken Kaufman over, actually replaced the real one with a Carrey one, and done it without in any way defiling, distorting, or being unfaithful to Kaufman. There is no Carrey ego visible here, not even a glimpse of the actor behind the character. From now on, when we see photos of the real Kaufman, or tapes or clips of his work, we will wonder just who that person is, because he has been replaced in our memories by Carrey.
Throughout, the film is seamless and believable. Danny DeVito as Kaufman's agent George Shapiro is our surrogate; we learn about Kaufman through his eyes. Paul Giamatti as Zmuda (who sometimes played Tony Clifton when it was necessary to separate the two parts of Kaufman) is the friend and amanuensis who has an almost telepathic relationship with him. And Courtney Love, as Kaufman's girlfriend Lynne Margulies, is warm and witty and spontaneous. We saw in "Larry Flynt" that Love is a versatile actress with a big range; here she confirms it with a lovely, unselfish performance.
Milos Forman's work has always intrigued me, because he is a director without a style. From his first Czech films, through "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Amadeus" and "Larry Flynt" to "Man on the Moon," the one statement a critic can make is that it is not possible to identify a 'Forman' look, or manner of shooting, or even a consistent approach to the work at hand. He simply adapts his admittedly superb skills to the job and gets it done. What are those skills? He directs actors as well as it is possible to direct actors. He helps them find the core of their characters, then helps them stay in character without a slip or a false move, and then lets them play their parts out for us. Think of Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham in "Amadeus." Forman found the way to give each of them great strength in the film, and then he let them play off of each other and move us to tears simply because these two men could not help but be who they were.
Forman is a masterful editor, with a sense of timing of shots and sequences that when cut together are invisible -- as opposed to Scorsese, for example, who insists that we know how he cut every scene -- and his camera placement is always that of the fly on the wall, simply watching the action or the moment. That too is a great talent, and often undervalued. I don't think very many people are going to see this film, any more than very many people cared for Andy Kaufman, but I do believe that it will be studied in film schools for years to come. That's probably the highest compliment I can give.