It’s only fitting that comedian Jim Carrey disappears so completely into comedian Andy Kaufman that all traces of his own personality are obliterated. The Kaufman portrayed in Man on the Moon would have demanded such total devotion to trickery.
Director Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus) follows a controversial film about a controversial figure, The People vs. Larry Flynt, with an unconventional biography about an unconventional performer, one that celebrates Kaufman’s anarchic sense of humor without trying to explain where it comes from.
Kaufman is portrayed as a walking contradiction, a self-contained man who only really comes alive when he’s in front of an audience. It doesn’t seem to matter to him whether the reaction he elicits is laughter or open hostility; getting a strong emotional response is the key.
So the film opens with a classic bit of Kaufman humor. Andy walks onscreen, directly addresses the movie audience in his foreign man persona (the sweetly awkward character who became "Taxi"’s Latka), and tries to get them to leave the theater. He even goes so far as running the closing credits and walking out of the frame. Sure, it’s a terrific joke – a character telling the audience the movie’s no good – but when Forman keeps that screen blank a few uncomfortable seconds after the audience gets it, he’s prepping us for what’s to come. Andy was testing you, that gesture says – are you worthy?
Man on the Moon is essentially a one-man show – everyone around Kaufman is there to either react to or conspire with him – and Jim Carrey ably carries the film. Slipping in and out of Andy’s multiple personalities, he captures Kaufman’s fastidious dedication to pushing entertainment to new levels of discomfort. Look into Carrey’s eyes and catch that glint of unadulterated dementia, the id raging free.
But why even make a biopic about Andy Kaufman when you firmly believe, as the filmmakers do, that this man was essentially unknowable? Perhaps because in our confessional era, when every action and reaction is readily pigeonholed, we need to encounter a true enigma.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.