Monday, November 7, 2011

Flick of The Day: Man on the Moon

It is 27 years since celebrated American comedian and performer Andy Kaufman passed away aged 35. By an conventional measures, Kaufman was an oddity. Not really a comedian, indeed it was a tag Kaufman himself shunned, his often bizarre performances combined music and outlandish complex practical jokes that only he was in on. His life story was made into a film starring Jim Carrey, Man on the Moon, which is today's flick of the day.
It would be hard to find an actor more suited to portraying somebody as wilfully different as Kaufman than Jim Carrey. Carrey long known for his rubber faced comedic roles, gives his best performance in a serious role by becoming fully immersed in the all too brief life and times of this American icon. The film skirts all the major incidents in Kaufman's life, from his beginning as an improvisational stand up that didn't do jokes to his elevation to Saturday Night Live and the incredibly popular sitcom Taxi, a role incidentally which Kaufman detested. It is a classic tale of rise and fall, Kaufman was the kind of performer whose style boggled the minds of your average audience in the late 70's and early 80's and as his performances became more outlandish, his star waned. Perhaps best remembered for his wrestling matches and feud with Jerry "The King" Lawler, the film reveals that it was another one of Andy's in-jokes and that he and Lawler were firm friends. For a man so in love with life, it was a tragic end when he succumbed to cancer.
While Carrey's is a justly lauded performance, this is a fine cast all round. Courtney Love continues on from her fine work in The People Vs Larry Flynt as Kaufman's devoted partner, reminding us all that once upon a time she was more than the perpetually addled widow of Kurt Cobain. Kaufman's former Taxi colleague Danny DeVito is equally strong as the manager who made him a star while Paul Giamatti shines as his comrade in arms.

Andy Kaufman: You don't know the real me. 
Lynne Margulies: There isn't a real you. 
Andy Kaufman: Oh yeah, I forgot

The film eschews any attempt to get to the bottom of why Kaufman was man he was in favour of a run through of his life. This lack of insight lets down the hard work put in by Jim Carrey, though it is hard to critique too much given that he never wrote about himself or revealed very much during his life. 
Perhaps the most poignant moment of the film is the night when Saturday Night Live hold a phone poll to decide whether Andy would be allowed to return to the who and he loses. The film-makers play around with history, with the implication being that his fellow cast members did not want him back though as Eddie Murphy put it on the night:

"Now Andy Kaufman is a friend of mine. Keep that in mind when you call. I don't want to have to punch nobody in America in the face"

Ultimately this is a tale of regret, of a life cut short in the prime. Those who burn brightest, burn the shortest. That said, the film is genuinely funny and at times I felt baffled by the audiences who would stare agog at Kaufman's antics and not see the joke in front of them. Perhaps he would have found a deeper and longer lasting fame in the modern world where increasingly bizarre is the new normal.
A worthy film about the life of an extraordinary man, this is definitely worthy of your time for the performances alone. Of the man himself, perhaps comedian Richard Lewis summed him up best:

"No one has ever done what Andy did, and did it as well, and no one will ever. Because he did it first. So did Buster Keaton, so did Andy"

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