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"Man on the Moon" avoids the dark side

By Peter Keough

DECEMBER 28, 1999:  Milos Forman's Man on the Moon, the late comic Andy Kaufman's last laugh at the rest of us, opens with a little quiz on irony. In a black-and-white prologue, Kaufman (Jim Carrey), the anarchic '70s comic best known as Latka on the TV series Taxi, thanks us for coming to his movie. Then, apparently stricken with second thoughts, he says the movie is stupid and terrible, and that this is the end of the movie. An uncomfortable pause follows. "Why are you still here?" he demands, only to reveal moments later that this is all a ploy to eliminate those poor suckers who don't get the joke.

Chances are, no one will leave at this point -- the joke would then be on them. And certainly a lot more will stay for the duration than the 28 percent who, in an infamous poll that ended the comic's appearances on Saturday Night Live, said they wanted Kaufman to remain on the show. That episode makes for a ruefully funny moment in the film, when it becomes clear that Kaufman has raised the stakes of arrogance and outrage a little too high.

In another scene, Kaufman and collaborator/alter ego/enabler Bob Zmuda (played in the movie by an outstanding Paul Giamatti, but in real life one of the film's producers and the author of a Kaufman biography), sharing a private laugh from the Andy Kaufman TV special that was never aired, admit that if just the two of them found the joke funny, that was enough. And in the end, when the miracle worker whom Kaufman enlists to cure his terminal lung cancer proves to be a phony, is the joke on Kaufman at last? Is that the punch line he was intending all along?

To its credit, maybe, this alternately smug and hilarious bio-pic has no answers. Nor does it approach any understanding of the motivation of its source. Surprisingly conventional and superficial, it consists almost entirely of Carrey showcasing his uncannily dead-on impression of Kaufman's bits ("channeling" is the quasi-religious term the filmmakers are prompting, with an eye to an Oscar), and does little to explore the possibility of a human being beyond those bits. There are only reaction shots from everyone else -- audiences, loved ones, even David Letterman, even Kaufman himself -- failing to comprehend, getting offended, getting the joke, realizing that the joke is on them. Kaufman's life in Moon is a weird sadomasochistic dance ending in adoration. In a sense, he is the anti-Robin Williams -- he'll do anything to be hated, as long as it gets a laugh and, ultimately, idolization.

The closest Moon gets to analyzing this phenomenon is early on, with a sequence of young Andy entertaining his little sister with childish imitations of animal noises. A jump cut is made to the adult Andy trying the same routine on a baffled and hostile club audience. Narcissistic innocence meets the reality principle of a tough crowd and discovers the estrangement and power of irony.

Chastened, Kaufman returns with the now-famous foreign guy -- the Latka prototype -- doing impressions. After arousing the audience's contempt, fear, and pity with a pathetic imitation of Jimmy Carter, he rocks the place with a triumphant turn as Elvis singing "Blue Suede Shoes." Kaufman has discovered his basic gig of inducing uncomfortable suspense followed by a reversal of expectation, and of manipulating complicity and annoyance.

As luck would have it, in the audience is superagent George Shapiro (Danny DeVito, who could have used some of the feistiness of the character he played in Taxi). Bewildered but impressed, Shapiro signs him up. The rest is checkered history, as Kaufman makes a mark with his role on Taxi (a show he despised), only to alienate audiences with his forays into wrestling with women and as his charmless Mr. Hyde, the grotesque and talentless lounge singer "Tony Clifton."

As a vessel for expressing his darker side, Clifton was hardly necessary, since Kaufman himself was pretty nasty. The only difference was that Clifton was uglier and unfunny. The wrestling, though, would seem a window into Kaufman's psyche; it seemed his only contact with women other than prostitutes, and it's how he meets the only love interest depicted in the film. Lynne Margulies (Courtney Love) answered Kaufman's challenge to wrestle on the Merv Griffin Show and ended up his wife. But any expectations that Love will bring the kind of insight to Kaufman that she brought in a similar role to the subject of Forman's superior The People vs. Larry Flynt are disappointed. She provides just another reaction shot, another admirer asking if this is all a joke.

And so it is, and a damned funny one. If for no other reason than its frighteningly well realized re-creation of classic Kaufman moments, such as the Mighty Mouse routine and the farewell concert at Carnegie Hall, one should stay for the duration. To glimpse the man behind the act would probably give the joke away.

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