Andy Kaufman was such a distinct comedic performer that it is surprising that it took this long to have a biopic devoted to his life. Director Milos Forman takes the helm, and in an unusual move, has cast Jim Carrey as the multi-faceted comedian and jokester. Even with Carrey’s spot-on performance, and the strength of Kaufman’s material, Man on the Moon fails to capture the true essence of Kaufman.
Andy Kaufman was never your typical comedian. In fact, he considered himself a song-and-dance man…but his specialty was elaborate hoaxes and practical jokes. His first claim to fame was “foreign man”, wherein Kaufman would pretend to be a recent immigrant, desperately wanting to succeed on stage, and yet utterly and hopelessly inept.
It’s at a club where manager George Shapiro (Danny DeVito) spots Kaufman’s act, and almost immediately signs him as a client. Shapiro arranges for Kaufman to join a new TV sitcom, Taxi, where Kaufman’s foreign man is given a name, Latka, and Kaufman rockets to national stardom.
But though Kaufman craved fame, he would be just as happy with infamy. Together with his friend and writing partner, Bob Zmuda (Paul Giamatti), Kaufman creates his most despicable creation, obnoxious lounge lizard Tony Clifton. And when Clifton’s insult humor starts seeming mundane, Kaufman launches a new career: a mysogynist wrestler of women. Just when you start thinking Kaufman can’t take his hoaxes any farther…he takes that next step. Bu
First of all, Jim Carrey has Andy Kaufman down cold. It’s as good (or possibly even better) impersonation of Kaufman than Andy himself could have done. And yet though Carrey’s performance tries to go beyond mere mimic, the screenplay holds him back. There are very few times when Andy is not “on” and doing one of his bits, and we barely get a glimpse of the man behind the mask.
And that is the most troublesome part of this film. It plays more like a highlight reel of Andy’s career rather than a straightforward biopic. Yes, Andy’s bits were good, and they’re enjoyable enough in the movie. But, Man on the Moon doesn’t succeed much beyond creating a best-of compilation, and that is a disappointment.
Still, as Carrey melts perfectly into Kaufman’s doppelganger, we have time to appreciate some of the other good performances which pepper the film. In particular, Paul Giamatti makes a distinct impression as one of the only men who comes close to truly understanding Andy’s warped sense of humor. Danny DeVito has a good turn as Shapiro, who’s alternately delighted and frustrated by his client. However, it’s slightly jarring to have DeVito missing from the Taxi scenes, when nearly all the other cast members returned for cameos.
One misfire in the cast is Courtney Love, although that has more to do with a weakly drawn character than Ms. Love’s acting skills. As Andy’s girlfriend, she always seems to be lagging one step behind. And, whereas Andy lacks a distinct character outside of his acts, she doesn’t even have those acts to fall back on.
Andy Kaufman’s life is a difficult one to adapt. Although Man on the Moon scores a coup by casting the chameleonic Carrey as Kaufman, the film never truly satisfies. Man on the Moon is a good primer of Kaufman’s work, but answers little about the man himself.