Man on the Moon is a brilliant, maniacally funny, and dizzying experience, yet anyone who walks into it expecting to gain entrance to Andy Kaufman’s inner world is going to be in for an irreverent shock. The movie restages, with devout and meticulous gusto, Kaufman’s infamous performances on Saturday Night Live, in wrestling rings, in L.A. comedy clubs and Las Vegas hotels and Carnegie Hall, and the performances aren’t simply the heart of the movie. They become the heart of Kaufman as well—the key to who he was as an artist and as a human being. Man on the Moon presents Kaufman’s life as a series of madly intricate reality-and-illusion stunts that escalated, in orchestration and intensity, until they burst the fourth wall of the media age. Was this all a surrealist prank? The ultimate pop-culture in-joke? Sheer lunacy? According to the movie, it was something more basic—it was theater. Audacious, in-your-face, spellbinding theater.
Andy Kaufman turned existence into performance (and vice versa), making you feel as if you were watching not just comedy but the psychotic breakdown of comedy. The inevitable reaction to a routine such as his miming of the ”Mighty Mouse” theme song wasn’t just laughter. It was the giddy thought, I can’t believe that I’m watching a man do this on national television. Kaufman’s unholy quest was to make his audience giggle and squirm at the same time, and there was something liberating in that, as if he were shredding the rules of entertainment you didn’t even know existed. Man on the Moon, written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt) and directed by Milos Forman (who directed Larry Flynt), doesn’t make the mistake of romanticizing Kaufman; it portrays him in all his dislocating weirdness. But, taking its cue from the dreamy R.E.M. song that lends the film its title, it memorializes him as a cracked prophet of modern showbiz who was never more himself than when he played someone else in order to play with your head.
Jim Carrey’s performance is an impersonation on the level of genius (he literally brings Kaufman to life), but what makes it indelible is its joy. His Andy is an exuberantly neurotic shape-shifter driven by a freaky split between childhood and manhood, fey softness and brute aggression, Latka Gravas and Elvis Presley. The elfin-sweet Eastern European man, whose charmingly broken English and rolling-marble eyes won Kaufman a mass audience on Taxi, is served up as a mere prelude to the ultimate Kaufman antics. His intergender wrestling follies become a thrilling, hocus-pocus series of conceptual fake-outs, culminating in his war with the Memphis pro Jerry Lawler. Even Andy’s girlfriend (Courtney Love), who, in the film, meets him when they wrestle on television, is both in on the joke and an unwitting part of it.
Andy’s greatest prank is Tony Clifton, the bloated, sky-blue-tuxedoed, fantastically abrasive lounge lizard devised by Kaufman and his writing partner, Bob Zmuda (Paul Giamatti), as a stand-alone villain who ”entertains” audiences by insulting them. Doing his scat-rasp version of ”Volare,” holding his finger aloft to silence the crowd, Tony may be the most loathsome image in the history of American show business, but Kaufman, in attempting to turn this supremely ugly alter ego into an actual person, makes him the wondrous essence of show business: a figure so mesmerizing in his grotesquerie that his very existence becomes an act of theatrical alchemy.
Man on the Moon may frustrate viewers looking for biographical detail. There is only one childhood scene, in which the young Andy plays, quite literally, to that fourth wall. Later on, Kaufman’s relationship with Love’s sweet, devoted Lynne is sketched in generically, at best. Yet the movie is savvy enough to see that Kaufman was a perpetual stranger even in his own life; he expressed his masochism and resentment through hyperbolic public stunts designed to make his most dangerous emotions look like a mere game. Carrey taps into the sincerity behind the put-on – the way that Kaufman, say, mocked women and Southerners during his wrestling bouts because he felt most loved (that is, acknowledged) when he was most despised.
The final joke is on Kaufman himself: When he is diagnosed with a rare form of lung cancer, everyone assumes it must be another hoax. (Visiting a psychic surgeon in the Philippines, he recognizes, with a shuddery laugh, a fellow charlatan.) Yet the cynicism boomerangs. In the sublime final scene, we see Tony Clifton on stage, singing ”I Will Survive,” and, more than just a tribute, it’s a resurrection. As a persona, Tony is so much more vivid than Andy ever was that it’s as if the comedian were truly still alive. For the ultimate put-on artist, the show will always go on. A