Man on the Moon (1999)
Andy Kaufman was a comic who didn’t like telling jokes; a sitcom star who hated sitcoms; and a performer who didn’t care if he was loved or loathed. It leads to his agent to ask him “who are you trying to entertain – the audience or yourself?” It’s a question that on could easily be asked of this biopic’s filmmakers. Yet whenever the film appears in danger of disappearing up its own fundament, the performance of Jim Carrey (like Mighty Mouse) arrives to save the day.
In typical Kaufman fashion, the film starts off with a prank when he announces that he has cut all the baloney out of the biopic and as result it is much shorter. Cue end credits. It is the first of many tricks Andy plays on an audience which unwittingly includes his family and friends. Some of these, such as a moveable piece of snot or a faulty vertical hold on a television special, are harmless fun. Yet the degree of mean-spiritedness that creeps into his performances as Tony Clifton or his reign as ‘Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion’, has the effect of gradually eroding audience empathy. So much so that when Andy announces he has cancer, our sympathies lie with his long-suffering family and friends who don’t know if this is another one of his practical jokes.
Battling against this antipathy is Jim Carrey’s transformative turn as Andy Kaufman. Though not necessarily endearing, it is an engaging performance that continues to hold the viewer’s interest throughout. Which is no mean feat given the title character takes great delight in never revealing his true self.
Appropriately, the film’s uneven tone is capped off by a perfect ending that would do Andy proud.
Biopic opens with Andy welcoming us to his movie and then advising us that all of the most important things in his life have been “changed around and mixed up for dramatic purposes.” Therefore, any analysis of reel vs real is rather moot. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that Andy Kaufman did not meet and Lynne Margulies in the wrestling ring, and that the "milk and cookies" Carnegie Hall performance took place years before Kaufman was diagnosed with cancer.