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COMMENTARY: 'Man on the Moon' Misses Kaufman

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Aug 16, 2001 | 9:13am EDT

It took me several days to process my reaction to "Man on the Moon," the Andy Kaufman biopic starring Jim Carrey.

Having been a huge fan of Kaufman since his earliest TV appearances, I was the target audience for this film, and -- having liked both previous screen bios written by the talented team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski ("Ed Wood" and "The People Vs. Larry Flynt") -- I was primed.

And I liked the film.

I had a wonderful time, relishing Jim Carrey's letter-perfect re-creations of Kaufman's stage persona and being moved by the film's bittersweet finale. Nonetheless, at "Man on the Moon"'s conclusion, the first thing I said to my wife (also a Kaufman fan) was, "I really liked that, but I'm not sure it's a good movie."

She agreed, noting that viewers coming in cold -- unschooled in Kaufmania -- might well be bewildered, even bored. "Man on the Moon" preaches to the choir, thereby doing its fascinating subject a disservice. Kaufman always managed to pitch his humor at two levels, entertaining both those who "got it," and those who didn't.

Of course those who didn't get it -- like the wrestling fans in Memphis who took Kaufman's hysterical spoof of a wrestling villain seriously -- got the entertainment value of hating the bad guy, which is what pro wrestling was and (and is) about. When Kaufman was wrestling women -- conning beautiful females into squirming around with him on a wrestling mat -- he was probably the first nationally known humorist to head-on tackle political correctness.

When Kaufman intoned traditional, ridiculous male chauvinisms about women needing to stay in the kitchen ("peeling the carrots, washing the potatoes"), those of us who immediately grasped his humor were further amused (and horrified) by the knee-jerk reactions of supposedly hip leftists who, as it turned out, didn't "get" Kaufman, after all. Feminists who took Kaufman's absurdities at face value -- and, by their reaction, warned the rest of us just how humorless supposedly informed people could be -- got entertainment value: They, too, got to hate the bad guy, in true wrestling tradition.

Unfortunately, "Man on the Moon," doesn't seem to "get it" where Kaufman is concerned.

With proper direction, and a better screenplay, Carrey may have developed an off-stage persona for Kaufman. But in this film, the creators capitulate: director Milos Forman (who also helmed "Larry Flynt") and the screenwriters cop out, implicitly insisting that their failure to find the interior life of Kaufman is Kaufman's own fault. "There is no real you," Courtney Love glibly tells Carrey, who sadly replies, "Oh yeah -- I forgot."

It's the filmmakers who forgot.

"Man on the Moon" does not give Kaufman the credit for his genius, that he had a complete intellectual grasp of what he was up to and a showman's instincts for how to play an audience. Carrey is stuck with a script that turns the "real" Kaufman into an idiot savant from which peculiar comedy magically spews.

This basic misunderstanding is a deep flaw that the movie itself seems to guiltily acknowledge by spending so much screen time on recreating Kaufman's stage acts and wilder backstage pranks.

The indication that Carrey could have pulled off an in-depth portrait of the real man comes in the final half-hour, when Kaufman is confronted by his own mortality and the karma of his "boy who cried wolf" technique. Overall, Carrey -- so dead on, so wonderful in re-creating the Foreign Man, De Elveece, the demented Intergender Wrestling Champion and especially the gloriously odious lounge-singer-from-hell Tony Clifton -- is almost painfully wrong in many of the off-stage moments. His portrayal of Kaufman the man is a mincing, precious, slump-shouldered mistake.

It's not Carrey the actor who is terrific in "Man on the Moon": it's Carrey the impressionist. (Notably, Carrey's early career was strictly devoted to spookily effective impressions. For a time, in fact, he was sort of the new wave Rich Little ... right down to his Canadian heritage.)

What is peculiar about the flawed script is that writers Alexander and Karaszewski previously were able to climb beneath the skins of two other oddball show-biz figures -- Ed Wood and Larry Flynt. Watching director Tim Burton's "Ed Wood" -- whose subject is every bit as bizarre as Andy Kaufman was (or pretended to be) -- I understand the legendary "bad" director's passions for film and, for that matter, angora sweaters. Forman's take on Flynt gave genuine insights into the blue-collar Horatio Alger story, exposing the squirmy nightmarish underside of the American dream even while extolling freedom of speech -- no small feat.

Forman adds to the awkwardness of "Man on the Moon" by casting real people as themselves and interspersing them with actors playing real people. We get an actor playing Merv Griffin, and then David Letterman as himself (wearing the glasses of today's Dave). We get Norm MacDonald playing Michael Richards (in the "Fridays" sketch re-enactment), but the cast of "Taxi" as themselves -- with the camera placed so close to their older visages that Forman seems to be willfully reminding us that 20 years have passed.

A further awkwardness is that, of course, Danny DeVito as Louie is absent from the "Taxi" cast because DeVito is busy playing Kaufman's manager.

Two books about Kaufman serve him little better. The superior of the pair, "Andy Kaufman Revealed!" (Little Brown, 1999), explores the partnership between Kaufman and comic Bob Zmuda. Zmuda's book is almost cheerfully mean-spirited and is as much, if not more, about Zmuda than Kaufman. The agenda of the book is to portray Zmuda as the conceptual brains behind much of Kaufman's art - a questionable thesis, to say the least. (To keep things honest, I should mention that Zmuda -- in passing in his book -- disses my film, "Mommy's Day," which I doubt he ever saw. Please know that I bear Zmuda no grudge for this and am in fact thrilled that something of mine should be mentioned at all in a book about Andy Kaufman.)

Worse, but more well rounded, is "Lost in the Funhouse" (Delacorte Press, 1999), Bill Zehme's pretentious, novelistic take on Kaufman's life. It's a pity that Zehme decided to go down such a preening, pompous stylistic road ("Clifton was called upon to obfuscate the sweet-chirping-tenking-dithering-whirlwind of it all which showed no sign of slowing") littered with boldface, italics, flash forwards, flashbacks and condescension.

Like "Man on the Moon," Zehme sees Kaufman as a gifted head case. He commits the unpardonable crime of writing a humorless book about one of the funniest men who ever lived. It's a pity, because Zehme's research work is first-rate, and -- once he gets past Kaufman's childhood and beatnik/hippie days -- traces the arc of Kaufman's career effectively.

A wealth of Kaufman's real material (the terrific wrestling documentary "I'm From Hollywood," his notorious "Midnight Special," the absurdist "My Breakfast with Blassie") are re-emerging to remind longtime Kaufman fans, and instruct new ones, on just who Andy Kaufman the performer was.

Kaufman the man? Who knows? Kaufman didn't want us to know, so maybe we should just respect that.

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