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Man on the Moon
1999 - R - 118 Mins.
Director: Milos Forman
Producer: Danny DeVito
Written By: Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander
Starring: Jim Carrey, Danny DeVito, Courtney Love, Paul Giamatti, George Shapiro, Lorne Michaels
Review by: John Ulmer
   

May I feel your breasts, Jim?
"They say, 'Oh wow, Andy Kaufman, he's a really funny guy.' But I'm not trying to be funny. I just want to play with their heads."

- Andy Kaufman

Was Andy Kaufman a brilliant comedian far ahead of his time, or a disgraceful, unfunny, mentally unbalanced individual who had a sick desire to confuse people? This is the topic at the center of Milos Forman's screen biopic, but the movie never really reveals anything remotely interesting - or enlightening - about Kaufman. He's more of an implacable human being after the movie ends than he was before.

To be fair, Carrey does a commendable job of portraying Kaufman, the man who was present for the launch of "SNL" on October 11th, 1975, and was later voted off of the show by callers, after producer Lorne Michaels asked his audience to decide for themselves. What's most bizarre about Kaufman, however, is that he admittedly never actually revealed himself to anyone. He was never in touch with himself, and relied on multiple personalities for amusement. Back then, he was regarded as a different sort of comedic talent, but to be blunt and honest, as much as I love the television show "Taxi," I think Kaufman really did have mental problems. As a child he used to stare at his wall, pretend there were cameras and put on shows.

This is where the film opens. Then it skips ahead. If there's one movie that needs more flashbacks of childhood, it is "Man on the Moon," a film that should have revealed Kaufman's past, rather then present us with a fairly mediocre timeline of events that we're already aware of. What has never been explained is Kaufman's past. Which leads to a startling conclusion, and one that the filmmakers may have stumbled upon (and which may explain the reason some twenty years are cut out of the movie): Kaufman has no past.

He's a man who left behind a legacy of mysteries and loose ends that were never settled. After the release of "Man on the Moon," there were rumors that perhaps Jim Carrey really was Kaufman, who he bore a startling resemblance to, and one that could have easily been altered with facial surgery. Yes, Carrey was born on the same day as Kaufman (January 17th), was almost as tall, had the same distinctive features, same lanky body, same sort of wacky, bizarre humor. And many of Carrey's films contain references to things Kaufman loved. Simply out of interest, I will provide some examples, even if I do not agree with this theory (which I do not, as I think Carrey's background is too thick).

Dumb and Dumber: Carrey plays a guy with a bizarre, sick, juvenile sense of humor who often acts like he's joking around, but doesn't realize this.

The Mask: Carrey evolves into an entirely separate persona after wearing a mask. Kaufman used to wear a mask as Tony Clifton and completely delved into character when doing so.

Batman Forever: Carrey plays infamous villain The Riddler, whose primary interest is tricking people and playing jokes. Hmm...

The Cable Guy: Carrey is entirely separated from reality, basing his entire life after various TV legends.
Liar Liar: This is pretty self-explanatory.

The Truman Show: His life is a television show.

Man on the Moon: He is Kaufman. And most critics and audiences think he plays him splendidly well.

Me, Myself and Irene: He has split-personality disorder.

The Majestic: Carrey portrays a man who has lost his memory and decides to live a new, better one in a small town in the middle of nowhere.
Coincidence? Considerably so. But the biggest question is this:

Did Kaufman stage his death?

To be honest, I wouldn't be surprised if he did. It sounds far-fetched, but everything Kaufman did was a hoax, from the David Letterman sequence to the "Fridays" disaster to showing up on the set of "Taxi" dressed as Tony Clifton.

Lots of people mimic his style, but after a while they usually let up and break character. Andy never broke character. When he was in character, he was in character, and that leads to another interesting possibility that has been oft discussed by his fans: Was Andy Kaufman actually a valid persona? Where did this man come from? One day he was a nobody, then he was famous, then soon infamous for his awkward behavior on and off the screen. (During filming of "Taxi," his manager found him in the kitchen of a restaurant, cooking fries for people and telling them he was not Andy Kaufman, despite the similarities he was always noted for.) Andy unarguably received pleasure from confusing his audience. He fit into personalities and never let go. Is it too unreasonable to suggest that Andy Kaufman was another persona he created one day? And one he eventually grew tired of and abandoned like he had with so many others? If so, then why would he do this to his family? Why would he not resurface after his adopted daughter traced her origins to Kaufman?

We don't know much about Kaufman's parents, and he introduced them only once on David Letterman's shows. To be fair, they could have been paid to pose as parents, and this is exactly the type of bizarre stunt that Kaufman would be capable of pulling. Also, as a child, he reportedly liked to run away and hide and scare his parents into thinking he had gone missing.

"Man on the Moon" tackles none of these subjects. It's a straightforward timeline of Kaufman's life, sloppily constructed and quite poorly directed on the whole. This could have been a controversial, epic biopic, and it also could have been a lot funnier and insightful. Even if Forman and Carrey decided not to delve into any "conspiracy theories" regarding Kaufman and his origins and his "death," it still would have been nice to explore his background more.

Was Kaufman an utter nut case or an under appreciated comic genius? We'll probably never truly know. And that's the primary fault of "Man on the Moon." By the end of the movie, Kaufman is completely unexplained. We're not able to truly sympathize with him, because the movie portrays him a freak of nature. Kaufman told the press once that he never cracked a single joke. It's true. So was he funny or just a sick, demented human being who liked pulling tricks on people, and possibly pulled a final one before disappearing into the middle of nowhere, leaving behind little traces? "Man on the Moon" doesn't know, and it doesn't try to offer any clearer resolutions. It's about as muddled and confusing as Kaufman was. And like Kaufman, it doesn't tell us a single joke, which is really a shame.
 
Movie Guru Rating
Below Average.  Mediocre. Has substantial flaws, but is watchable. Below Average.  Mediocre. Has substantial flaws, but is watchable. Below Average.  Mediocre. Has substantial flaws, but is watchable.
  2.5 out of 5 stars

 
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