Man on the Moon (1999)

Director: Milos Forman

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Many of Milos Forman’s English-language films (I have not yet had the pleasure of seeing his Czech films) share in common a regard for the iconoclast, the man ahead of his time, the rebel. Whether chronicling the defeat of live wire McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, presenting the perhaps distasteful victory of pornographer Larry Flynt in The People vs. Larry Flynt, or depicting the desperation of Spanish artist Francisco Goya in trying to save his muse from the Spanish Inquisition in Goya’s Ghosts, Forman has taken on the mores of society and authority as they are applied to the individual and given us one entertaining challenge after another.

In Man on the Moon, Forman offers for our consideration one of the more incomprehensible iconoclasts of our time—Andy Kaufman. Was he a comic genius or an unfunny lunatic who hit our funny bones from time to time, like a broken clock shows the correct time twice a day? Would he have been as big a star if he had never agreed to turn his foreign man character into Latka Gravas on the hit TV show “Taxi”? Is he really dead or pulling off the biggest fake of his career? Andy Kaufman’s legacy is rather complicated. Perhaps predictably, given the scads of Kaufman friends and collaborators on the creative team of Man on the Moon, Forman’s sympathies lie squarely with Andy.

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The film starts in a typically Kaufmanesque way—Kaufman (Jim Carrey) as foreign man appearing next to a phonograph and saying that the film took so many liberties with the truth that he felt compelled to edit them out. Consequently, the film is already over, and the credits start to role to the heroic-sounding music on the record player. When the record comes to the end, the credits stop. Kaufman has to start the record over several times to keep them moving. Finally, he says it has all been a joke and that there is lots and lots of movie ahead.

The movie proper opens with young Andy (Bobby Boriello) jumping on his bed and performing to the adjacent wall. His father (Gerry Becker) lays down the law—no performing to an imaginary audience; he has to perform for people. Andy’s first audience is his cute little sister (Brittany Collona, Andy’s real granddaughter). Fast forward to Andy bombing in a nightclub and being fired. “Fired?” shouts Andy. “You don’t pay me!” But he heeds the nightclub owner’s advice about doing impressions and telling real jokes. He does “take my wife, please” at Budd Friedman’s Improv Comedy Club in New York. The audience doesn’t know what to make of his unfunny awkwardness, but he ends up bringing down the house with his impersonation of Elvis Presley. George Shapiro (Danny DeVito) goes back stage after the show to offer Andy representation. Andy stays in character until Shapiro turns to leave, then gushes that he’s honored to meet Shapiro and takes him up on his offer. He tells Shapiro that he eventually wants to play Carnegie Hall.

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In 1975, Andy gets the chance to play what would become the comic’s version of Carnegie Hall—he appears on the very first airing of Saturday Night Live and triumphs by lipsynching “Here I come to save the day!” as the theme song to “Mighty Mouse” spins on his little phonograph. Things move fast in this movie, and before we know it, George is talking Andy into turning his foreign man into Latka for “Taxi,” which debuted in 1978. Andy’s major condition for being on the show is that someone named Tony Clifton gets four guest appearances on the show. Clifton, an insulting, tone-deaf lounge lizard is really Kaufman. Shapiro sells the deal to ABC by saying they’ll be getting two Kaufmans for the price of one. Kaufman’s logic seems to be infecting everyone.

moon%20giamatti.jpgIn reality, Clifton was played by Kaufman’s writer/friend/coconspirator Bob Zmuda (played here by Paul Giamatti) for almost his entire “life.” When Zmuda as Clifton and Kaufman appear on the same stage, the pair’s epic practical joking kicks into high gear. Andy, an admirer of the theatre of professional wrestling, decides he wants to tour as a wrestler. Zmuda suggests that a real wrestler would take him apart in five minutes. Kaufman hits on the idea of only wrestling people smaller than himself, leading him to challenge women all over the country, inciting challengers and the crowd with sexist remarks.

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I always thought Kaufman just wanted to cop a feel during these matches, and the woman who challenges him in one city and becomes his girlfriend, Lynne Margulies (Courtney Love), says as much. Unfortunately, Andy’s wrestling exhibitions and slurs not only of women but of the South—connected to his real-seeming fights with pro wrestler Jerry Lawler (playing himself)—are just too much for his fans to take. He has crossed a line he never acknowledged existed, and fans of SNL vote him off the show as being “not funny” anymore. “Taxi” is cancelled. He gets a rare form of lung cancer, searches for a miracle cure in the Philippines, and laughs bitterly when he discovers that the scam is on him this time.

To generate good vibes (he’s into transcendental meditation), Andy stages a Christmas extravaganza (an interesting choice for a Jew to make) in Carnegie Hall, complete with a human Christmas tree, a flying sleigh carrying Santa Claus, and the Rockettes. He piles the audience into school buses and takes them out for milk and cookies. He dies anyway, and the mourners at his funeral sing along with a filmed Andy projected above his open casket in what looks like a church (again, interesting choices for Andy’s Jewish family to make).

The people who knew him apparently loved the guy. Every original cast member from “Taxi” appeared in the film, as did the real Zmuda, Shapiro, Margulies, Kaufman family members, David Letterman and many more—all of whom are credited on IMDb in the longest list I’ve ever seen on that site. Man on the Moon makes Kaufman seem like the opposite of many comedians—sweet in real life and savage on stage. He doesn’t seem to be working out any anger, just trying to mess with people’s expectations. Unfortunately, the psychology or life experiences that created this proto performance artist never made it into the script. Given what I know of the street theatre of the 1960s, a lot of anger at society and attempts to break the mold of conformity motivated it. Kaufman seems to be a product of his time in this regard. It’s sad to say that Kaufman’s experiments gave birth to shock jocks and trash TV like “The Jerry Springer Show.” He may have been gentle in private life, but his persona in his later career gave fangs to a society I’m not too thrilled to be living in. Frustratingly, Man on the Moon skips a thorough examination of Kaufman or his legacy, even as it provides a great entertainment. Forman fails to challenge us this time, but perhaps it was not his fault.

It has been commented on ad nauseum how Jim Carrey appears to be channeling Kaufman. My problem with his performance is that he’s got Kaufman’s personae down perfectly, but fails to connect with Andy Kaufman the man. Similarly, the other performances in this film are sugar-coated. Courtney Love, in particular, showed she could do complex and troubling characters in The People vs. Larry Flynt. Her Lynne is a girl-next-door cipher who appears in Andy’s life, and despite her anger at him for using her as a prop in his fake quarrel with Lawler, becomes just that for the rest of the film.

I watched Andy Kaufman and loved a lot of what he was doing—particularly his ABC special that was kept from airing for two years by timid network executives. He was often funny, original, fearless, and tragically, was taken from the world far too soon. He also opened a Pandora’s Box of performance art that few entertainers seem interested in extending in creative ways. Andy Kaufman was a great subject for Milos Forman to explore. Too bad those who loved him decided to scam us yet again.

  • Piper spoke:
    7th/01/2008 to 7:56 pm

    Imagine if this movie would have been made by Spike Jonze. That would have been something.
    I felt like this should have been a little rougher around the edges, but instead Milos tries to make an epic biopic. You’re right on Carrey. He doesn’t really connect with the man. On and off the stage, Kaufman seems like a flake in this movie and I don’t know that he was.
    I think that maybe it would have been more interesting if the writers and director would have focused more on one aspect of his career like the wrestling or the Clifton bits.
    And it’s my understanding that they took major liberties with the story. Kaufman’s Milk and Cookies moment came long before he was diagnosed.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    8th/01/2008 to 10:56 am

    Piper – The film acknowledges the liberties it took, very subtly, apparently as kind of a Kaufmanesque joke. I didn’t really get it, but then Kaufmanesque jokes are designed that way, I guess.
    I did find the film entertaining, but it’s typical of its genre; biopics, I think, are the least satisfying films out there.

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