moviebuff801: Time Capsule Reviews: Man on the Moon (1999)

Posted: November 14, 2012 by moviebuff801 in moviebuff801's Movie Reviews, Time Capsule Reviews

Release Date: December 25th, 1999

Running Time: 1 hour and 59 minutes

Written By: Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski

Directed By: Milos Forman

Starring: Jim Carrey, Danny DeVito, Paul Giamatti, Courtney Love

Does the man make the legacy, or does the legacy make the man?  I apologize if I’m coming off as too philosophical not twenty-five words into this review, but that’s the very question at the center of director Milos Forman’s outstanding Man on the Moon.  And no, this isn’t a movie about Neil Armstrong.  Instead, it’s about Andy Kaufman, an entertainer who was notorious for his unpredictable nature, and from start to finish, it’s a fascinating film about arguably one of the most fascinating individuals to have ever made it into the entertainment industry.

The film chronicles Kaufman’s years where he vexed the general public while in the spotlight.  Self-described as a “Song and Dance Man” and starting out as an unconventional performer in nightclubs, Andy Kaufman (Jim Carrey) eventually catches the eye of George Shapiro (Danny DeVito), an agent in Hollywood who’s intrigued by Kaufman’s unusual style and immediately takes him on as a client.  Not long after, Shapiro manages to land Kaufman a role on a T.V. show that will make him a household name: Taxi.  But Kaufman considers sitcoms to be the lowest form of entertainment and only agrees to be on the show if he can exercise his own forms of entertainment on the side.  Needless to say, Andy Kaufman’s idea of entertaining people always alienated and confused them at the same time, and anybody familiar with his work would either describe it as acts of madness or the work of a misunderstood genius, or maybe even a bit of both.  The rest of the film portrays all of that in a way that can only be described as nothing short of mesmerizing.

Man on the Moon is not only a showcase for the antics of Andy Kaufman, but also for Jim Carrey, who channels the man so well, the fact that you’re watching an actor playing the role becomes irrelevant by the five-minute mark; this is Carrey’s best performance, hands down.  Not once while watching this film did I see Jim Carrey playing a part; I saw an entirely new person, one who constantly had me enthralled by what he was about to do next.  Carrey adopts the mannerisms and quirks of Kaufman in such a way that it’s obvious he has a great deal of respectfor him.  Carrey is so convincing, in fact, that right after my first viewing of this movie, I started finding out as much as I could about Kaufman, and that just left me in an even stronger sense of marvel at both the performance and the fact that Carrey wasn’t nominated for an Oscar.  Around Carrey are many other seasoned actors, each aware that while they need to be good, they still can’t take the spotlight away from Carrey.  DeVito maintains a proper balance between shock at Kaufman’s audacious material and a genuine level of care and concern for him, functioning as something of a father figure.  Paul Giamatti also shows up as Bob Zmuda, who was Kaufman’s writer and fellow behind-the-scenes “partner in crime.”  And Courtney Love does fine work as Lynne, the woman who caught Andy’s heart and dealt with him with amazing care and integrity.  But, as I’ve said, this is Carrey’s movie, and it’s the pinnacle of excellence in a handful of other amazing dramatic work from him, the likes of which include The Truman Show and the underrated The Majestic.

Part of the beauty about this movie, though, is how it’s a bio film that doesn’t try to paint its subject in any particular kind of light.  It just presents the career of Andy Kaufman and all the wild things he did, and doesn’t make any apologies.  At least, that’s the impression that I got.  Man on the Moon just wants to show what Andy Kaufman accomplished in his life, and in so doing, the movie does something peculiar and intriguing: it basically adopts the personality of Andy Kaufman himself.  What I mean by that is just like you would with Kaufman, you may not always be sure if you should be laughing or not, but that’s a reflection of what Andy Kaufman would have wanted you to feel.  In his last few years, Kaufman contracted lung cancer, and the fact that everyone around him, including his family, takes it as another one of his pranks feels both sad and appropriate.  This is a guy who prided himself on fooling everyone throughout his life, and that reaction is only painfully organic.  Early on in the movie, Kaufman says to Shapiro: “Whether people walking away from my work hate it or love it, at least they’ll be talking about it.”  In that regard, the screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski is wonderful, as it always keeps you on your toes.  The film certainly isn’t your typical Jim Carrey comedy, but that works in its favor.  The whole tone is just so wonderfully bizarre that even if you don’t find yourself to be a fan of Kaufman’s schtick, what can’t be denied is the sheer energy brought to the storytelling.

Milos Forman, who directed another great film about a real person, Amadeus, knows exactly what he’s doing and he should consider himself proud, because he’s made a movie that creates a real desire from the viewer to delve into the life of its subject.  Before Man on the Moon, I can’t recall any other bio film that actually compelled me to sit down and find out as much as I could about the main character, so hats off, Mr. Forman, hats off.  Even if the film takes certain liberties in how it portrays key events in Kaufman’s life, the final product is still a film that gives you a vivid sense of the kind of person Andy Kaufman was.  And if that’s not worth anything, then I don’t know what is.

At the end of the day, Jim Carrey is phenomenal, the script is engrossing, Milos Forman’s direction is top-notch and the film itself, just like Andy Kaufman, is something approaching brilliance – if it isn’t there already.


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