Robin’s Underrated Gems: Man on the Moon (1999)

On this week’s Shouts From the Back Row podcast, we focused on the subject of “The Best Box Office Bombs” and one infamous box office flop that all three of us could agree on liking was the Andy Kaufman biopic, Man on the Moon. On the surface, this would seem like a film that was destined to be a hit as it starred Jim Carrey, one of the biggest box office stars in the world at the time, and was released around the Christmas season as pure Oscar bait. However, the reason it was not a success is probably due to the fact that the term “acquired taste” doesn’t even begin to describe Andy Kaufman. I worked at Blockbuster Video when Man on the Moon was released on video and I still have vivid memories of coworkers and customers absolutely loathing this film. It’s possible that many of them were expecting a typical goofy Jim Carrey comedy along the lines of Ace Ventura or Dumb & Dumber, only to be disappointed to see him playing a comedian whose brand of humour was not “typical” in the slightest. Even though Jim Carrey did win a Golden Globe for his performance, the film was completely shut out at Oscar time. Even after his acclaimed performances in the likes of Man on the Moon, The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it seems that the Academy just will not take the poor guy seriously as an actor and has yet to bestow a nomination upon him. However, for those who are a fan of Andy Kaufman’s style of comedy, Man on the Moon is a terrific biopic. It may not offer any profound insights into the mind of its subject, but it is a lot of fun.

Man on the Moon opens with a sequence that perfectly captures Andy Kaufman’s bizarre, anarchic sense of humour and should be used as a measuring stick for how much you will enjoy the rest of the film. Andy Kaufman (Jim Carrey) pops up on the screen in his “foreign man” character and explains to the audience that he wasn’t happy with the overall movie and requested that everything about it that he didn’t like get cut out. Unfortunately, this means that there is nothing left and that we have already reached the end of the film, so the end credits start rolling! If you find this sequence clever and amusing, you are bound to love Man on the Moon. If you don’t… well, you’re probably going to be in for a long two hours.

Anyway, after this inventive prologue, the real story of Andy Kaufman’s life finally begins. Right from childhood, Andy wishes to be a famous entertainer, but he clearly does not want to entertain people in a conventional way. He gets his start by performing stand-up comedy in nightclubs, but he does not just stand up there on stage and tell jokes. His entire act seems to be based around looking as inept and untalented as possible, often leaving the audience in long stages of awkward, uncomfortable silence. However, the audience just cannot take their eyes off of Andy since they have no earthly idea what’s going to happen next. Sometimes Andy will provide them with an entertaining payoff and sometimes he won’t. However, the sheer unpredictability of his whole act captures the attention of talent agent George Shapiro (Danny DeVito), who believes that Andy is a comic genius, even if his unpredictable nature can drive you crazy. George eventually gets Andy a gig on the network sitcom, Taxi, where Andy will get the opportunity to turn his “foreign man” persona into a popular comedic character named Latka. Andy is actually dismayed by this news because he loathes sitcoms and their traditional, formulaic brand of humour. However, Andy agrees to take the role on the condition that a friend of his named Tony Clifton will get some guest spots on the show. It turns out that “Tony Clifton” is actually Andy Kaufman’s alter-ego, whose entire character is based on him being the most untalented, obnoxious and difficult entertainer you can imagine.

The Tony Clifton persona is just one the many elaborate practical jokes and gags perpetuated by Andy and his creative partner, Bob Zmuda (Paul Giamatti). Even though his role of Latka on Taxi garners Andy popularity, he is not content to coast on the success of a hackneyed character on a sitcom and desires to constantly push the envelope. Of course, Andy’s elaborate stunts wind up alienating a lot of people and doing damage to his career, but that’s exactly the way he wants it. Man on the Moon was penned by the screenwriting team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who had previously written Ed Wood and The People vs. Larry Flynt and were Hollywood’s go-to guys for writing biopics about very eccentric individuals. Director Milos Forman had previously made People vs. Larry Flynt alongside them, and had taken home numerous Academy Awards 15 years prior after directing Amadeus, another biopic about a very eccentric artist. This time, he wasn’t so fortunate. It goes without saying that when you’re making a movie about a person whose bizarre brand of humour winds up alienating half the people who knew him, that movie could easily wind up alienating half the audience. Some people I know who didn’t like Man on the Moon did not find Andy Kaufman to be the least bit funny and wonder why no one tried to murder him for some of the stunts he pulled. As a lifelong wrestling aficionado, one of my favourite sections of the film deals with Andy’s infamous feud with professional wrestler Jerry “The King” Lawler. While it may not have seemed obvious at the time, Andy Kaufman’s personality was just PERFECT for the world of professional wrestling as he built up an obnoxious, sexist heel character for himself that caused people to legitimately hate him. His feud with Lawler brought wrestling more mainstream publicity than it had ever been seen before, leading to the infamous incident where Lawler slapped Kaufman out of his seat on Late Night with David Letterman.

Of course, in real life, Lawler and Kaufman did not actually hate each other and were working together all along to fool millions of people. In fact, during the filming of Man on the Moon, Lawler and Jim Carrey managed to fool the media again by getting into a fight on the set that turned out to be completely staged. Andy Kaufman was obviously way ahead of his time and his style of humour would help pave the way for comedic performers such as Sacha Baron Cohen, who love making their audience wonder how much of their act is real and how much is staged. Late in the film, when Andy announces that he has developed terminal cancer, some people remain sceptical to the very end about whether he or not he is faking it. Jim Carrey, an admitted lifelong fan of Kaufman (who also seems to love making people wonder if he is batshit insane), is simply terrific in the role and captures Andy’s persona and mannerisms just perfectly. It’s possible that the main reason that he was denied an Oscar nomination is because after the film is over, you still haven’t gotten much of a glimpse of the “real” Andy Kaufman or gotten much insight into why he acted the way he did. However, I’m sure Andy Kaufman himself would never have approved of a biopic that offered some simplistic explanation for his behaviour, and would probably be quite satisfied by the fact that the finished product still leaves you scratching your head about him. In fact, he may have been overjoyed that Man on the Moon was a box office flop and drew mixed reactions from audiences, so maybe the film’s failure was only appropriate for the subject matter. If you’re not a fan of Andy Kaufman, then Man on the Moon isn’t going to convert you into one, but if you enjoy the unpredictable nature of his work, you’re going to have a good time. I would think that Andy is quite happy that I consider his biopic to be an underrated gem.

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