Man on the Moon
1999, R, 118 min. Directed by Milos Forman. Starring Jim Carrey, Danny DeVito, Courtney Love, Paul Giamatti, Tony Clifton.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Dec. 24, 1999
“I'm pushing an elephant up the stairs,” declares one of the lyrics in “The Great Beyond,” R.E.M.'s Man on the Moon theme song that tries to capture the essence of the Andy Kaufman performance mystique. The image might more accurately describe the motion of this biopicture as it strains to unlock the ineffable quality that characterized the comedian's humor. The image is an ungainly sight, a mockery of physics, an absurd ambition. Undoubtedly, Kaufman could have coaxed that elephant upward (with one hand tied behind his back); Man on the Moon, however, pushes like Sisyphus, doomed always to return to the starting point: the enigmatic Kaufman -- the comic performer who sticks in your craw, gets under your skin, sails over your head, and flails intrepidly into the great beyond. Over the years, the effect and intent of Kaufman's humor has been analyzed, dismissed, debated, copied, sanctified, and maligned. Nevertheless, it is yet to be defined. It would seem the purpose of this movie, if not to deify, is to define -- and in this it fails miserably. Andy Kaufman is as much an enigma at the end of Man on the Moon as he is at the outset. The movie opens promisingly with a couple of scenes of the young Andy as a child practicing his strange schtick in his room. But then the biographical survey cuts abruptly to Kaufman's first performance gigs. From there, it's a few more quick scenes before he hooks up with his manager George Shapiro (DeVito), lands a supporting spot on Taxi, and becomes a superstar phenomenon. He's already on top, but we don't really know how, or why. We're still trying to connect the peculiarities of that child back in his Long Island bedroom with the success of this multi-egoed talent who craves audience reaction. The movie provides little but dead-on imitation for those who never found themselves “in” on the Andy Kaufman joke; for his fans, the movie offers little material that's new or revelatory. In fact, the demands of filmmaking that necessitate the trimming or abridgment of timing in the comic's stage routines may seem more of a bowdlerization than artistic license. Never at fault in this is Carrey's impersonation of Kaufman; it is as near a DNA cloning as allowed by modern movie technology and the art of imitation. Carrey's performance is a technical marvel, yet it dazzles without edifying. Carrey's co-stars fare less charitably. As his girlfriend Lynne Margulies, who was with Kaufman the last two years of his life, Love reprises her spousal duties for director Milos Forman, who also cast her as Althea Flynt in his last film The People vs. Larry Flynt. Margulies is a less showy and more subordinate role than Althea Flynt, thus it seems, perhaps unfairly, to be a less substantial performance. As Shapiro, DeVito is always affable and animated, but something about the casting always rings false because most of the other Taxi co-stars are on hand to reprise their roles as themselves. DeVito can't believably play George Shapiro when we know he is Louie De Palma. Forman reteams with Larry Flynt (and Ed Wood) scribes Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, but this time the team loses sight of the points they want to make. Man on the Moon is likely to leave audiences as baffled about this Kaufman/Tony Clifton/wrestler fellow as they were during his original incarnation … and that would be the greatest disservice of all.