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Review: Man on the Moon (1999)

Man on the Moon (1999)

Directed by: Milos Forman

Premise: A biopic of performer Andy Kaufman (Jim Carrey). The story focuses on Kaufman’s artistic projects, including his television work on Taxi, his wrestling career, and his live performances.

What Works: Man on the Moon is another excellent biopic from director Forman, whose other projects include Amadeus and The People vs. Larry Flynt. The film smartly works Kaufman’s unique style of entertainment into the aesthetic of the film. Carrey gives the performance of his career as Kaufman. It is the kind of biopic role in which a familiar lead actor disappears, like Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Capote or Charlize Theron in Monster and he is able to create a complete sense of the character, including Kaufman’s innocence and naiveté. The most thankless role of the film is Danny DeVito as Kaufman’s agent George Shapiro. As Shapirio, it is up to DeVito to represent the audience trying to understand Kaufman. Shapiro’s struggles with Andy, in some cases trying to reign him in, are not the actions of a small minded censor but the pragmatic concerns of someone struggling with the relationship between art and commerce. Shapiro also goes on a journey in this film, as he attempts to forward Kaufman’s post-modern entertainment in the face of opposition from network executives and others who cannot or will not understand the joke. As a period piece, the film is able to recreate 1970s and 80s America and convey how ground breaking Kaufman’s work was.

What Doesn’t: In some ways Man on the Moon is an attempt to mend Kaufman’s legacy and explain his art to the audience. While that is a noble intention, it is somewhat problematic because a critical element of Kaufman’s act is that his jokes were played on people who did not understand for the people who did. Given that Kaufman is now deceased, these concerns are not as urgent.

DVD extras: Andy: The Andy Kaufman Story documentary, featurettes, deleted scenes, music videos, DVD ROM features.

Bottom Line: Man on the Moon is a great picture of a complex artist and his work. The film is not entirely a tribute piece to the man, as the story and Carrey’s characterization finds faults with him personally, but it is a tribute piece to his work. The film also demonstrates what contemporary performers like Sacha Baron Cohen or Matt Stone and Trey Parker and even Marilyn Manson owe to Kaufman’s legacy.

Episode: #118 (November 19, 2006)