Man on the Moon Man on the Moon directed ...

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:23

    But like Williams?who claimed leading-man status and then contaminated it with repeated injections of syrupy uplift?Carrey was born to make us laugh, and the only thing funny about Truman was that he was the only person in his obsessively surveilled universe who wasn't in on the (sick) joke. You caught flashes of Carrey's demonic energy in the scenes where Truman was angry, frustrated or incredulous, but he reined those emotions in, too. He was fine, but the role could have been played by just about anybody with an edge of apple-pie blandness, from Edward Norton to Keanu Reeves to Scott Wolf. In fact, less gifted clowns might have had an easier time of it because they don't have great energy to suppress.

    It would be a shame if Carrey followed the Williams model of giving audiences one clown role and one piece of sentimental pandering, effectively divorcing his dramatic ambition from his talent. A better career model is Eddie Murphy, who has surprised audiences many times over the last several years with roles that required him to stretch, even act, without neutering his own comic genius. In the woefully unappreciated A Vampire in Brooklyn, The Nutty Professor, Life and Bowfinger, he seemed to be channeling Peter Sellers in his prime. He was screamingly funny and technically impressive at the same time. He was funny partly because he was doing very demanding types of physical humor?slapstick, character work, improvisation under heavy makeup?without letting us see the effort involved. He understands that comedy?all comedy?is somewhat like ventriloquism. If you let audiences see your lips moving?i.e., expose the technique?it's not funny anymore.

    The role of Andy Kaufman is a great Robin Williams role?the role Robin Williams never had, and will never have now because he's too old, too comfortable and too in love with being loved to play such a weird, remote, basically unknowable guy. (David Letterman once said of Kaufman, "Sometimes, when you look Andy in the eyes, you get the feeling somebody else is driving.") Carrey comes through with not just the best performance of his career to date, but the most complex and demanding. He's nothing short of astonishing.

    It takes a while to get used to him because while Kaufman was brilliant in his own twisted way?a clown, a wiggy performance artist, and the most important tv comedian since Ernie Kovacs?he wasn't really much of a performer in the classic sense. Carrey is. He can sing in any style nearly as well as the person he's imitating; he's a fine dancer (check out The Mask) and a slapstick ace who can do more crazy things with his body than anybody alive, except perhaps Jackie Chan. In that sense, Carrey has been cast against type, just as he was cast against type in The Truman Show. But the performance is exponentially more difficult because Carrey isn't merely being asked to hide his comic gifts; he's being asked to ratchet them down, reshape them and deploy them in character. He has to do an amazingly accurate impersonation of Kaufman onstage, and that means he can't be excellent or flashy. He can't dance and prance with rhythm, because Kaufman moved somewhat awkwardly, which was one source of his humor. Carrey can't play the bongos better than Kaufman, or do Elvis better, or respond more gracefully to other actors when he's doing Latka from Taxi. Carrey has to be a different kind of brilliant, unique performer. Imagine Johnny Depp starring in a biography of Marlon Brando and you have some idea of what Carrey is up against.

    Part of what made Kaufman funny?or at the very least, interesting?was that he didn't have much showbiz chops to speak of. He wasn't a great singer or dancer, he didn't do one-liners and his acting (on ABC's long-running Taxi and in the rarely seen sci-fi comedy Heartbeeps) was fascinating because it seemed so alien. He made other actors tune in to his wavelength, which was on a different band entirely, and his groping attempts to meet them halfway?to leave the Planet Cuckoo for a second and interact with a non-crazy human?were funny because they were so imprecise, so groping and tentative. Steve Martin arrived on the national scene around the same time as Kaufman, and deconstructed the assumptions of comedy and showbiz along similar lines, but he's a safer, less alarming figure because he kept the audience laughing, and because he was a great performer. (When Martin played the banjo fluently, and then said what the audience was thinking?"Hey, this guy's gooooood"?he wasn't just explaining the nature of the surprise. He was also expressing pride in his own excellence?something Kaufman would never do.)

    Man on the Moon is a great showcase for Carrey, but it has problems, some of which could have been remedied with a bit more courage, others of which strike me as irresolvable. The film is directed by Milos Forman and written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who seem to be specializing in showbiz biopics of disreputable fringe characters (they wrote Tim Burton's Ed Wood and Forman's The People vs. Larry Flynt). It wants to be an emotional knockout, but while the basic building blocks are there?brilliant young man with a dream fights the system and then dies young?the nature of the material makes it impossible. We can't really like Andy. He was mesmerizing because, unlike nearly everybody who has ever gotten into showbiz, he didn't seem to care if people liked him. He wanted them to watch him, sometimes even follow where he led them, but he didn't crave approval. At times he seemed to feed on audience hatred?particularly during the last years of his life, when he donned the guise of The Man from Hollywood, taunted Memphis crowds by calling them "rednecks" and "white trash" and wrestled women to win the self-invented title of Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion.

    Forman and Carrey do a fine job of recreating many of Kaufman's career highlights, from his years on Taxi (a zippy montage, with the original members, minus Danny DeVito, playing themselves) to the wrestling madness to Kaufman's now-legendary concert at Carnegie Hall, after which he invited the entire audience out for milk and cookies. Tony Clifton, Kaufman's obese, mustachioed, abusive, no-talent lounge-singer character, is onscreen so much that Carrey should probably be credited for playing two roles. Carrey, a born showman and an exceptionally skillful one, stays inside this strange little man, who is, to put it mildly, not talented in the traditional sense. There are a couple of moments where you sense Carrey straining not to dazzle us with his own physical skill. But for the most part, the seams don't show. Onstage, his Kaufman amounts to frighteningly rich impersonation; offstage, it's a convincing inquiry into the mind of a comic ghost.

    The problem with this kind of movie?one of them?is that most of Kaufman's great moments as a performer are already available on film and tape. So there's an element of "Why bother?" And if you remove the recreations of Kaufman's characters and routines, what's left is a pleasant but not too deep inside-showbiz drama?more penetrating than a biographical tv movie, but less incisive than the documentary Andy Kaufman: the Man from Hollywood or the ABC special that was done on Kaufman following his death.

    The film starts promisingly, with Carrey as Kaufman addressing the audience and promising them a bad movie, then a good movie, and doing some other shtick; but except for a brief reprise of this bit during the end credits, Man in the Moon doesn't play with the form of the movie biography. A film about Kaufman should break storytelling rules the way Kaufman himself broke comedy rules by confusing and baffling and angering the audience.

    Forman and his writers also do an end-run around Kaufman's most baffling and abrasive qualities by presenting him as a fragile dreamer, kind of an elfin child of the tv culture who was suckled on the tube and grew up wanting to be both Howdy Doody and Buffalo Bob Smith. He seems very lonely; though he forges relationships with longtime writing partner Bob Zmuda (played by Paul Giamatti), manager George Shapiro (played, for some reason, by Kaufman's Taxi costar DeVito) and girlfriend Lynne Margulies (Courtney Love), the film gives no indication as to what these people got out of a friendship with Kaufman, besides the right to say they spent time with a genius. Did he really need anybody, except professionally?

    Surely he did, but the movie doesn't explain why, much less go into the doubtlessly bizarre mechanics of being friends with Andy Kaufman. Whether he is acting sweet or ugly, Kaufman seems unreachable?the comedian as highly functioning autistic. A scene where Zmuda and Kaufman hatch Kaufman's wrestling career while watching a match on tv is disquieting because while Kaufman is talking to his partner, he doesn't seem to be talking with him so much as at. You get the impression it could be anybody in that room with Kaufman?that what matters is what's on the tv and Kaufman's interpretation of its importance. Throughout the film Carrey delivers Kaufman's lines in an eerily accurate approximation of Kaufman's offstage voice?a little-boy voice, soft and mushy and slightly hollow-sounding, as if it were coming from inside a jack-in-the-box or from underneath a pillow fort.

    But the little-boy thing only explains so much. After a while you start to wonder if Kaufman's friends were really so understanding all the time. They chastise him for being intractable as an artist, but they never express exasperation with Kaufman the person, who surely must have been a pill at times. Despite his randomness and opacity, this Kaufman is a frizzy-haired, questing saint?and he's surrounded by other saints. (The script conflates artistic yearning with spirituality; Kaufman meditates on the set and off the set, and when he's diagnosed with a rare form of lung cancer and tries so-called "psychic surgery," there's a wonderful moment that merges supernatural awe with a magician's party trick.) There's a lot of pleasantness and understanding on display in this film?so much that it feels fake, like retrospective wish-fulfillment masquerading as historical drama. Except for a few stuffed shirts, everybody is eventually won over by Kaufman, including the unspecified ABC network executive (Forman regular Vincent Schiavelli) who once thought Kaufman was a spoiled, troublemaking lunatic. It's not a whitewash, exactly, but it's a bit rosy?all of it. The film seems to be giving a lot of people credit for recognizing Kaufman's genius right off the bat, including members of his audiences, both live and in the tv studio. (Unsurprisingly, Shapiro is credited as one of the film's executive producers. Margulies and Zmuda are credited as advisers.)

    I also found it interesting that one of the most important unacknowledged factors in Kaufman's comedy, his Jewishness, is virtually ignored by Forman and company. There's a theory that says Kaufman was conflicted about his own religion and culture, and he translated that conflict into a brand of comedy that fed on audience loathing. When Kaufman journeyed to one of the hearts of white Southern culture, Memphis, and baited Southern white Protestants while screaming, "I'm from Hollywood! I'm better than you! I will sue each and every one of you!" it seemed the act of a suicidal Jewish provocateur. "I'm from Hollywood" is code language when it comes from Kaufman; so is, "I hate people from Hollywood," when it comes from the mouths of Kaufman's non-Jewish enemies in Memphis. But the film is too timid to hang a name on this element of Kaufman's story.

    His parents, who are in the audience in Memphis when Kaufman wrestles a woman, seem terrified to be in there, but the film won't hint why; when Kaufman's father hears the crowd crowing for his son's blood, he gasps, "They're gonna lynch him!"?yet the film seems to have no clue why he would say that, or why the statement is more than metaphorical to him. Kaufman searched for fulfillment in other religions, Eastern and new age, and this is an important part of the film's dramatic arc, but there's no indication of why he was dissatisfied with Judaism, or that Judaism and anti-Semitism and America's love-hate attitude toward Jewish performers influenced Kaufman's life or career. His memorial service displayed Kaufman's body in an open casket, which is forbidden in traditional Jewish services. When the camera tracks backward through the sniffling crowd and we see that the men are wearing yarmulkes, it's almost surprising, and it shouldn't be.

    The approach is a familiar one for Forman, Alexander and Karaszewski. Forman wants to universalize the exceedingly peculiar Kaufman, just as he wanted to universalize Larry Flynt, even it means smoothing over rough edges and ignoring thorny aspects of the character's background. He thinks that if he doesn't make his rebel hero palatable?as palatable as possible without selling him out?then audiences will tune out. He doesn't open the theological-cultural can of worms because he doesn't want it to blow up in his face. In this sense, at least, Man in the Moon is a strange film: a film about Andy Kaufman that wants to please as many people as possible.