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Monday, July 02, 2018

Man on the Moon

The penultimate film in my Milos Forman tribute is Man on the Moon, from 1999. It was written by the same guys as The People vs. Larry Flynt, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, and is again about a person who lived on the margins, this time of show business. That was Andy Kaufman.

I am about the right age to appreciate and remember Kaufman. I saw his TV debut on Saturday Night Live, miming to the Mighty Mouse theme song. I watched many episodes of Taxi, where he played his "foreign man" character, Latka Gravas. I remember his taking his Carnegie Hall audience out for milk and cookies, and his wrestling phase. All of them are here, and it reminds me of Kaufman's genius. He was not a comedian, as he says here many times. He was a performance artist. He took a premise, like being a chauvinistic man who said he could beat any woman wrestling, and took it to ridiculous lengths. You never knew when he was putting you on.

In a way, Man on the Moon is a let down, like finding out Santa Claus isn't real. We are told in no uncertain terms that Tony Clifton, an obnoxious lounge singer, and Kaufman were one and the same, or that the fight between Kaufman and Jerry Lawler on the David Letterman show was staged. The part they left out, due to time I'm sure, was his last bit, when he claimed he had converted to Christ and sang hymns. Seeing Kaufman as he really was, while interesting, is a let down.

The film is told in a straightforward, chronological style. Kaufman was a kid who put on shows in his bedroom (like Gilda Radner's character Judy Miller). He performed at clubs for no pay, and people didn't understand him, though agent George Shapiro (Danny DeVito) does, and Kaufman becomes a star, mostly to hip college kids. But we get the standard biopic devices--he was insecure, he needed to be "on" to feel alive, etc. The movie's structure and style are the kind of think Kaufman wouldn't like. The only touch that feels right is the intro, where Kaufman (played by Jim Carrey), tells the audience that everything in the movie is not true.

What makes this film better than average is the performance of Carrey. If I were making the film, I might have wanted to go with an unknown, because Carrey's persona was so big I wouldn't have thought it could have been subsumed by Kaufman. But it did; there are many times in the film I forgot I was watching Carrey. I think Carrey is a great talent but much of his career has been wasted on silliness; this is by far his best performance.

Man on the Moon also comes with great verisimilitude by having many people play themselves, such as Lorne Michaels, the cast of Taxi (Judd Hirsch, Marilu Henner, Jeff Conaway, Carol Kane and Christopher Lloyd) and the incident on Fridays, when he broke character and got into a fight with the cast, has Norm Macdonald as Michael Richards. David Letterman appears as himself for the Lawler fight, and you can tell Dave was uncomfortable.

Kaufman was a one of a kind performer and you do get that from the movie, I just wish it had been a little zanier. Side note: my friend Steve, who also grew up on Long Island like Kaufman did, attended his funeral just in case it was a gag. It's been thirty-four years since his death, and I think some people are still waiting for the punchline. The film's last shot is an affectionate wink at those who believe.

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