There are some actors, and I won’t mention names, that do what they do for the paycheck, and particularly those in comedy who have a substantial fanbase who don’t need to do anything brilliant or inventive to make money, other than just appear on screen once a year. Jim Carrey is one actor who constantly surprises me with his film choices. In the last few years, he’s sunk to doing mainstream comedy that doesn’t really let him explore his broad talents, but there was a decade between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s when Carrey was the biggest comedic star in the world, not because he is an absolutely hilarious performer, but because he was able to balance popular mainstream fare with other interesting, more obscure projects. Perhaps his crowning achievement of this period was Man on the Moon.
Andy Kaufman was a strange man. He was part psycho, part child and fully ingenious. Today, his humor would be considered hilarious and he’d have a great fanbase (much like how Zach Galifianakis has built an entire comedic career out of being gloriously weird). However, when Andy walked the Earth in the 1970s, he was pretty much an acquired taste – audiences weren’t looking for odd, surreal humor – they wanted cheesy punchlines and good-old family values in their comedy. Not to say Andy didn’t have his fans. He certainly did, but one must wonder how many of them became fans of Andy before his death, and after. In my mind, there is no one else in the world capable of getting a grip on Andy and transforming himself into the character more than Jim Carrey. His embodiment of Kaufman is intense – I have no idea how he managed to do it, but he got every cadence of his voice, every facial expression and every movement to be almost exactly like Kaufman. Consider the fact that they don’t even look very much alike, and you will be able to see how incredibly Carrey’s performance is.
At the surface, there is nothing that makes Man on the Moon any different to the standard Hollywood biopic – brilliant artist gets discovered, gets famous and has a massive downfall or tragedy – its a common trope of filmmaking, and it works. However, delve deeper in Man on the Moon and you will see some great differences that make this a very unique biopic. First of all, Kaufman was around during the 1970s, which was a comedy Renaissance – the formation of Saturday Night Live, Taxi and dozens of other shows gave several of today’s most beloved and legendary comedians their first shot. Kaufman was right at the centre of it all, so there was absolutely no way this film would not show it. Milos Forman did something very daring – he cast the original castmembers of Taxi as themselves (except Danny DeVito, who has a substantial role as George Shapiro, Kaufman’s agent. The real Shapiro had a cameo in the film as one of Andy’s first employers). The cast of Taxi returned, and were made to look younger, as did David Letterman and his crew and Jerry Lawler, who was part of one of Andy’s most elaborate pranks. This gives this film a weird realism, as it isn’t quite Hollywood fantasy anymore – these are the real people who acted across from Andy. It gives it a documentary feel to it, and makes it all the more brilliant.
The most important thing is that this film doesn’t make Andy into this legendary, perfect entertainer, nor does it make him into an unlikable, dark performer. It portrays Andy as a fun-loving, mischevious man with a dark side – it never makes him a fairytale character or a really disturbed man. The filmmakers here were not trying to ruin Kaufman’s reputation or change the public’s perception on him – they simply wanted to tell his story in the most honest way possible. They created an enigmatic, strange character that was fascinating but painfully human – we all feel the way Andy did – we’ve all tried and failed, but eventually found our niche.
Man on the Moon is a pretty remarkable film. Jim Carrey gives his greatest screen performance yet, and Milos Forman proves what a brilliant director he is, and how adept he is at telling stories of extraordinary humans in the most simple way as possible, by deconstructing them and portraying them as simple, normal human beings. This is definitely Jim Carrey’s best performance, and one of his most underrated. I just wish he would return to making this kind of film, because his talents are being wasted these days. Overall, a brilliant film that remains one of the most candid and honest biopics around.