TBT – Man on the Moon (1999)


As I said in my Tuesday’s Review of Jim & Andy this week, I’m sure that I’ve seen Man on the Moon at some point in my life but, for whatever reason, I couldn’t remember it. I guess it’s mostly because I really don’t know who Andy Kaufman is. Not only was he not really a ‘thing’ in the UK but I wasn’t even born when he died. I’d heard of him but certainly had no real appreciation of his popularity or supposed genius. My interest in this film will basically have come down to my interest in Jim Carrey. As with most people around my age, he was probably one of my favourite actors growing up. As I kid my sister and I loved his films. We rented the VHS of Liar, Liar on a number of occasions and I’m pretty sure we watched The Mask so much that the ribbon started wearing down. Oh my god, 90s kid problems, am I right? Kids today… etc etc etc. So, after watching the documentary this week and with the film currently being available on BBC iPlayer, I decided it was only fair that I rewatch it for today’s review. This isn’t exactly going to be a massive review but it’s taking me ages. Not because of the film but because I’m procrastinating. I’m heading to London tomorrow to stay with a friend and I need to get my stuff together. Instead, I’m watching some shitty cooking show on Netflix and not writing this. I’m definitely going to regret this when it gets to midnight and I still don’t have my clothes ready for the morning. I’m nearly 30, when exactly does the part of my adult brain kick in that gets me to pack quickly and efficiently? I miss the days when I wasn’t expected to do anything the night before we went on holiday. Conveniently, the days that this film would have been coming out.

Andy Kaufman was the kind of person that delighted in confusing and tricking his audiences. That’s why the opening to this film feels like the most appropriate tribute to him. It starts with the man himself (played by Jim Carrey) explaining that the film was so bad that he edited it down. In fact, the film was so terrible that all that could be saved was the end credits, which proceed to roll as Andy plays a record on repeat. Moments after the credits finish Andy returns to the screen to explain that was a test to ensure his audience were the kind of people that would understand his humour and appreciate what he was trying to do. It’s a simple but very effective way of getting across the real genius of Kaufman before we learn anything about him. It’s a stand out moment and a great way to kick things off.

After the opening things start to get a little less exciting. We see snippets of Andy’s life from being a child performing in his bedroom to his huge show at Carnegie Hall. He has a lot of difficulty in finding his place as people just don’t understand what he’s doing. A lot of what he does is intentionally terrible and playing up on the silliness. He doesn’t fit in with the traditional stand-up vibe so has to make sacrifices to get to the top. Most notably taking a job on the popular sitcom Taxi, a decision that he didn’t want to make but agreed to in order to get his own network special. Andy delights in confusing his audience and tricking them. The greatest example of this is his most famous alter ego; the obnoxious lounge singer Tony Clifton. Clifton was loud, difficult and insulting. The perfect antithesis to Kaufman’s own more innocent image.

Man on the Moon is your basic biographical film about a comedian. There really is only so far you can take it before it becomes a recreation rather than an exploration. Watching it now, especially after watching the documentary, I couldn’t help but feel that it didn’t really go far in getting to grips with Kaufam and, instead, just replayed the major events that lead to his success. We see Carrey perform snippets of his most famous routines but there it’s all too brief. We watch a lot of people trying to cnonvince other people that Kaufman is a genius but the evidence isn’t always there. Then there’s the fact that the film presents the entertainer as wholly positive. There is never a sense that anything he does, for whatever reason, is questionable. This isn’t a hard-hitting look at the life of a popular performer but more of a celebration of his greatness.

But maybe that has something to do with the tragic circumstances surrounding his death. Kaufman was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1983. The end of the film focuses on his struggle with the illness and, quite frankly, the scenes are emotional. Aside from the opening, it is the final few scenes that provide the greatest moments in the film. Watching as his friends and family come to terms with the news and seeing Andy struggle with the idea of his mortality are played as straight as they should be. Kaufman was only 35 when he died, which is obviously no age at all. I’m not say his short life shouldn’t be celebrated but I couldn’t help but wonder if Andy’s death pushed the whole film more towards the sentimental than the analytical.

There is a question, particularly with the image that Carrey and co. have created in the documentary, that there is a greater story behind the scenes. The documentary wanted, but failed, to start a conversation about the madness behind performance. In Man on the Moon Kaufman is hailed as a genius who subverted comedy and changed the fucking world. But how much of the innocent, man-child image the real story? What of the madness that lay behind Kaufman’s need to lie and cheat his audience? I couldn’t help but feel that there is a bigger question everyone is ignoring. Just what possessed Kaufman to act the way he did and why was everyone happy to let it happen? I’m sure he was funny but he also seemed like a huge dick.

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