Cyberlizard goes to the movies

Man on the Moon

Starring Jim Carrey, Danny deVito, Courtney Love, Paul Giamatti, Jerry Lawler, Vince Schiavelli

The REM song "Man on the Moon" was not a tribute to the Apollo astronauts but to the comedian Andy Kaufmann. I had not heard of him before this film appeared, but he was big in the United States and one of the key characters in the comedy series "Taxi", which also showed on British TV.

The film

The film starts with Kaufmann (played by Carrey) doing one of his comedy routines and running the credits at the beginning of the film in time to a wind-up record player. We then switch to a short vignette of the comedian's early life, but this lasts only a few minutes before the film fast forwards to Kaufmann as a struggling young artiste, introducing his rather bizarre routine to an unreceptive audience, a performance which ends up in him being fired for failing to raise any laughs. Kaufmann then tries again with new material, including his famous squeaky voice, in another club, and after a successful response is taken under the managerial wing of George Schapiro (Danny deVito). From then on the film charts the rise but increasing erraticism, not to mention occasionally destructiveness, of Kaufmann, before his peak, decline and untimely death of cancer.

To be frank the first part of the film drags, and while people may like Jim Carrey they may find Andy Kaufmann a less loveable character. However the film is worth staying with, if only because it asks fundamental questions about much modern comedy and indeed media hype. For example, Kaufmann's alter ego "Tony Clifton" seems to assume a separate life of his own, daring the audience (and the viewer) to guess whether it really is Kaufmann underneath the makeup and Las Vegas cabaret singer effects, until one night he deliberately shatters the illusion by appearing on stage with Tony Clifton (played instead that night by his scriptwriting partner, Bob Zduma (Paul Giamatti)). This leads to booing by the audience and to an exasperated Schapiro demanding of the two men in the dressing room whether they are really only interested in amusing themselves. Kaufmann's reply effectively is that is he forced to stay ahead of the audience all the time, a statement that has been echoed by other comedians in an age when gags, routines and one-liners are used up within five minutes thanks to the instantaneous and simultaneous nature of modern entertainment. Whereas in the past material could be used by players for years, the insatiable contemporary demand for more and yet different places considerable creative strain on the comedian: paradoxically in opposition to the mature musician, who often finds that most audiences are restless unless given material that they know well.

Again, the nature of reality is sometimes challenged, or at least reality as presented by the media. Much of the middle of the film is taken up with Kaufmann's unlikeable persona of "Merv", the "inter-gender wrestling champion" who challenges women to prove they really are better than men by beating him in the ring. Since women do go in and fight him (usually to lose), the uncomely spectacle generates a torrent of hate mail, all of which is gist to Kaufmann's mill. Equally angered, insulted wrestlers find their outlet in the wrestling champion Jerry Lawler (played by himself), who challenges Kaufmann to fight a real man after Kaufmann beats a female wrestler he puts up against him. [WARNING - next lines contain spoiler!]. After whipping up the audience to a frenzy of rage, Kaufmann is apparently beaten so badly that his neck is broken, and then appears on the David Letterman show with Lawler in an apparent show of contrition only to repeat the whole ugly insulting episode again. However, in a genuinely surprising twist it turns out that Lawler and Kaufmann were in fact acting as a double act and both enjoyed themselves. The dangerous nature of this game is shown, however, when Kaufmann reveals that he has cancer, only to be doubted and distrusted by close family and friends.

To be honest, Carrey makes Kaufmann seem initially at least a less than likeable character. In the first part of the film he comes across as arrogant, unreasonable and insensitive, and if you don't find his brand of humour particularly amusing then you probably won't warm to him much. Later on, however, we see the vulnerable side of the comedian: essentially a rather naive child who wants to please, and who in his last big performance invites all his audience out for milk and cookies afterwards (and fulfils his promise!). Indeed it is possible to ask whether Kaufmann, with his apparently unquestioning trust in transcendental meditation, crystal healing and miracles in the Philippines, was not actually an innocent in some ways. At the end of the film at Kaufmann's funeral the gathered mourners sing along with a video left by Kaufmann of him leading them in a rather child-like song that invites them to put their arm around the person next to them. This innocence is juxtaposed with the following scene of Tony Clifton playing the comedy store, the comic persona apparently having assumed a life of its own but leaving you wondering momentarily whether Kaufmann didn't indeed fake the whole thing.

The actors play their parts competently. Carrey is of course made for the rubbery facial expressions of such men. It was also a nice change to see deVito playing a serious straight part rather than either psychopath or buffoon. I was pleasantly surprised that Courtney Love could actually act reasonably as Kaufmann's partner Lynne. In terms of contentiousness there is some strong language in the film, although relatively minor compared to many contemporary releases, while Kaufmann's comedy routines might conceivable offend some and frustrate more.

Overall, not a brilliant film, but worth seeing especially if you are into modern comedy and stand-up.

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