Andy Kaufman loved a practical joke. Now it appears that "Man on the Moon" may turn out to be the comic's greatest posthumous gag.
To be sure, the $52 million Universal biopic about the late, convention-defying "Taxi" star debuted Dec. 22 with all the trappings of a hit waiting to hit: an incredibly bankable star (Jim Carrey), an Oscar-winning director (Milos Forman) and strong critical buzz.
But the film dropped out of the Top 10 in just its third weekend and, as of Monday, had grossed just $30.8 million. Experts now predict it will take in $45 million at most during its domestic run, making it the lowest-grossing film of Carrey's marquee career.
Why did "Man on the Moon" spiral out of orbit so quickly? As with Kaufman's schtick, it's not so easy to tell truth from fiction.
THEORY 1: "THIS IS NOT A CHRISTMAS MOVIE"
"Man on the Moon" was originally slated for release on Nov. 5. Universal announced last August, however, that the film would be pushed back to Christmas Day. The release date was later changed (again) to December 22.
It wasn't behind schedule. The final cut was finished in late summer but, according to news reports, Universal executives felt the film was so brilliant that they wanted more time to promote it to a wider audience. Ostensibly, they also wanted to capitalize on the Christmas movie-going season and put the film into the thick of contention for the Golden Globe nominations - thereby feeding Oscar buzz.
"All the people who really know how this stuff works felt that the original plan, releasing it in November, would have been the best call because there was an open field," Bob Zmuda, "Man on the Moon" co-executive producer and Kaufman best friend, tells Hollywood.com. "As Milos Forman said, this is not a Christmas movie. This is an R-rated film, it ain't 'Toy Story,' it ain't 'Stuart Little.'
"There is usually a more serious film-going audience in the fall," Zmuda says. "In the Christmas season, you're looking for lighter fare. And I think that everyone at Universal pretty much realizes now that it was not the best call in the world. But, who knew for sure? I'm sure they were thinking that a Jim Carrey movie would do well at Christmas."
Then again, "Man on the Moon" was hardly the only R-rated drama released during the just-concluded holidays. "The Green Mile," a death-row drama, "Any Given Sunday," an ultra-violent ode to football and macho prowess, and "The Talented Mr. Ripley," a stylish thriller about an upwardly mobile serial killer, all fared much better than "Moon" at the box office.
THEORY 2: ANDY WAS TOO WEIRD
Perhaps the problem with "Man on the Moon" is that its main character - the film's very reason for being -- is too obscure, or simply unlikable. Did Andy Kaufman ruin the film about Andy Kaufman?
"I think that's the biggest challenge with this film," a Universal executive says. "People don't like him [Kaufman], or they don't know him and they don't care to. He didn't go out of his way to be likeable. The movie doesn't try to turn Andy into anything more audience friendly than he was. He is who he is. Having Jim Carrey play him didn't make him any more like Jim Carrey, he was still dead-on Andy Kaufman."
Indeed, Robert Bucksbaum, president of the box-office tracking firm ReelSource, recently told USA Today that the film has failed because young audiences are used to seeing a Carrey movie "where he's talking out of his butt."
"Man on the Moon" has no talking butts. Instead, it's a veritable highlight reel of Kaufman's comic routines, from his naïve Foreign Man character (originally performed in night clubs, and later metamorphosed into loveable Latka Gravas on TV's "Taxi") to his alter-ego, the abhorrent, booze-soaked Night-club singer, Tony Clifton.
Still despite the offbeat subject matter, Universal's heavy promotion of the film on TV, billboards and the Internet had led some film pundits to predict, just a few weeks ago, that "Man on the Moon" would be among the season's top box-office hits. Based on Carrey's track record, which includes "Liar Liar" ($181.4 million domestically), "Dumb and Dumber" ($127.1 mil), "The Truman Show" ($125.6 mil), "The Mask" ($119.9 mil) to name a few, the prediction probably wasn't unfounded.
Or was it?
"The only reason people were seeing it as a $100 million movie, was because they didn't know anything about it except that Jim Carrey was in it," the Universal exec says. "I don't think they knew Jim Carrey wasn't doing Jim Carrey, he was doing a dead-on Andy Kaufman, and there's a big difference."
And as for Zmuda's contention that the film would have fared better if it were released as originally planned, when it would have been up against films like "The Bone Collector," "The Bachelor" and "The Insider," the Universal executive disagrees.
"I don't think it would have made a difference. No matter when it was released, I think it would have had the same challenges. If we were guilty of anything, it was of being too honest about what the movie was, of being true to the material rather than being deceptive in any way or trying to make Kaufman more mainstream than he really was. Sometimes there's subject matter that's just for a more limited audience."
THEORY 3: THIS MOVIE SUCKS
Ask any hardcore Kaufman fan - someone who's seen "Heartbeeps" and has tapes of Andy's appearances on the old Letterman show - and you might hear a different reason for the film's commercial pitfalls.
The truth is, says Brian Momchilov, Webmaster of the Kaufman family-sanctioned Andy Kaufman Home Page (http://andykaufman.jvlnet.com),.Andy Kaufman wasn't an unlikable guy - he just seems that way because the movie was made by people who didn't understand him. "
By not delving deeply into Andy and his personal relationships with friends and family, the audience is provided with absolutely no reason to like this guy," Momchilov says. "And despite Andy's outrageous act, he was a real person. Unfortunately the movie steers way clear of this issue."
Momchilov spares no vitriol for the film, calling it "insipid, annoying and very disappointing" and "a one-trick pony -- It's a shame that the folks in Hollywood bought into the folk tale that there was no real Andy Kaufman, in fact they even have Carrey and Courtney Love speaking those actual lines. And so, they never really had much of a product to sell."
"Who would want to go see a movie about a pain-in-the-ass enigma with no visible redeeming qualities?"
Bill Zehme, author of the new Kaufman biography "Lost In the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman" (Delacorte) thinks director Forman and screenwriters Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander relied too heavily for their material on Zmuda, whom he accuses of portraying Kaufman as "a complete circus freak." Zehme said the filmmakers were foolish not to focus more on Kaufman's childhood, when his odd humor and world view were formed.
"Clearly, the studio needed to rush Carrey [on] the screen ASAP -- therefore discounting the magical soul of the boy who became the man, who never stopped being the boy," Zehme says. "That was the largest error, and what killed Andy all over again, this time in retrospect."
THEORY 4: WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS, BLAME IT ON THE MARKETING DEPARTMENT
On Dec. 27, just five days after "Man on the Moon" opened, the Washington Post featured a lengthy story chronicling the "guerrilla" marketing campaign devised by Universal to generate advance buzz about the film, and hinting that the campaign may have backfired. As part of the campaign, Universal reportedly gave $100,000 to a group of hard-core Kaufmanites to create to a Website (www.andylives.org) which perpetuated the longstanding rumors that Kaufman faked his death. One caveat was hat the Website make no mention of Universal and operate as a "fan site," even though it was funded by the studio.
Other parts of Universal's campaign involved upside-down newspaper ads, and would-be avant-garde TV spots (with Carrey doing Kaufman's "Mighty Mouse" routine). But what drew the most attention was a press conference in which Carrey was "attacked" by Tony Clifton (Zmuda in disguise), who engaged Carrey in a fight in front of reporters.
According to the Washington Post story, "panic" rose among Universal executives after the Clifton-Carrey bout, and market research showed that public interest in seeing the movie dropped slightly; a Universal big-wig then asked Zmuda to refrain from doing the Clifton thing at the film's West Coast and East Coast premieres, "telling him it will kill the movie's chance at a broad audience."
Zmuda, however, says he was never asked to keep Clifton away from the events. "That's absolutely not true. I think everyone agrees now that [the fight] was a huge press hit. That probably drove more people into the theaters than anything -- Can you imagine telling Tony Clifton that he's not going to [attend the premiere]? If you did that, he'd have to show up."
"The option was up to me, from Day One, to do Tony. As a matter of fact, they [Universal] were disappointed that Tony did not appear at the L.A. premiere."
Now, Zmuda and Universal officials are hoping that Carrey's critically acclaimed portrayal will win a Golden Globe and, by extension, an Oscar nomination, which could boost interest in the film. "It ain't over 'til the fat lady sings," Zmuda says.
Maybe "Man on the Moon" really wasn't meant to rake in big box-office bucks. Two biopics about offbeat protagonists also penned by "Moon" screenwriters Karaszewski and Alexander -- "Ed Wood" and "The People Vs. Larry Flynt" -- made just $5.9 million and $20.1 million, respectively. Then again, Universal opened "Moon" in more than 2,000 theaters - not exactly art-house fare. "The 'Larry Flynt' picture had sort of the same uphill battle," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations.
"The protagonist of the story was neither well loved nor well known by mainstream America. Kaufman was well known back when 'Taxi' was on TV, but both he and Larry Flynt were unsavory, not the nicest people in the world, and that makes it hard to draw people in to the theaters."
In the end, "Man on the Moon" may turn out to be Kaufman's last and biggest prank on the entertainment industry - an industry whose conventions Kaufman hated. Zehme contends that Kaufman likely would have hated "Man on the Moon," too, for it is "the opposite of all Andy stood for."
"The movie gave not a damn about that beautiful spirit; Carrey might have, but nobody else in connection did. It's all pretty horrible, isn't it?"