It had been several years since I last watched Man on the Moon starring Jim Carey, Danny DeVito, Courtney Love, and Paul Giamatti and directed by Milos Foreman. I remember vividly when the movie came out in 1999 and the press that Jim Carrey was getting for playing a dramatic role—not only for who he was playing, the enigmatic and probably autistic Andy Kaufman, but also the craft with which he approached and executed the role. As I sat down to give this movie a second go, I have to admit, my most vivid memories of it were Andy Kaufman and Jerry “The King Lawler”, the existence of Bob Zamuda and Tony Clifton, and Andy traveling to the Philippines to have his “cancer” removed. Other than that I was a fairly blank slate entering the movie. I had forgotten most of the particulars.
Watching the movie, you can’t help but fall in love with Andy Kaufman because, even though he is totally the inspiration for “Tom Green Show” (dated!) style antics, he has an innocence to him that is absolutely charming. Carey does a great job in taking the role on in such a way that you don’t question that this highly recognizable actor is playing another highly recognizable actor—you simply watch Andy. I suppose it was this innocence, this total commitment to the joke that only he was in on, is what made him so endearing and magnetic. However, the social ineptitude that must be the origin of such commitment and innocence, along with the incredibly awkward way that it can isolate people totally unreceptive to the prank, is the root of many theories about Kaufman being somewhere—undiagnosed—on the Autism Spectrum of Disorders. Regardless of a diagnosis, one cannot deny the brilliance and genius behind Kaufman’s entire approach to comedy…once you get to look behind the curtain and see the man pulling the levers and switches.
It is this innocence, along with a genuine kindness that made Kaufman such a loveable person to everyone in his life, without a doubt. The number of people who agreed to play themselves in this movie is a testament to the love that Kaufman generated. The entire cast of Taxi was present in the film—even if Danny DeVito was in fact playing another character. It strikes me that it must have been a double edged sword for DeVito to play a role in the movie…both cathartic and injurious as he was able to bring his friend back to life, but also relive his death and re-experience his grief. However having Danny DeVito so close to him, probably proved a great benefit to Carey in portraying Kaufman and adds a sense of credibility to the performance. Also present in the film was the real Jerry “The King” Lawler, David Letterman, and if credits are to be believed Tony Clifton—the imaginary lounge singer created and portrayed by Kaufman and his co-conspirator Bob Zamuda.
All in, the move takes you through some of the larger and most important moments…not necessarily in Kaufman’s personal life, but in his career (though if there is a distinction it is hard to tell) and some of the context that few people could know of in a world without internet. Only in a world without internet could the insane pranks that Andy Kaufman tried to pull on the audience ever work, because in today’s world the few people that would be in on the joke—the audience of Friday’s for example—would be tweeting and posting pictures of the truth…in real time. You get this real sense that Andy Kaufman was a gentle soul—played truly by Jim Carey, and supported by a cast that makes you love the man, not the actor. I would be remiss if I didn’t say that I do have a soft spot for biopics and period pieces, but nonetheless if you haven’t seen this movie its worth your time for laughs and sadness; it’s a ride in humanity. If you have seen it, see it again and experience the world through the eyes of a man who gets the joke that nobody knows is being played.
Written by: Brandon Melendez