Judging by the tone of Milos Forman's new biopic Man on the Moon, that is the response with which the viewer is supposed to emerge. Called variously "a nihilistic elf," "a Zen guerrilla," "a dadaist comedian," and "the first true performance artist," Kaufman was indeed a very original showman. But one among many, to be sure. Special? Yes, of course he was, sometimes stupendously so. In fact, the self-proclaimed "song and dance man" (he wasn't really much of either) is probably solely responsible for originating at least a couple of the top 10 televised giggles for a couple of recent American generations. (Who doesn't remember the Mighty Mouse stunt? Or Latka Gravas' shenanigans on Taxi?) His friend and performing partner Bob Zmuda has long praised Kaufman's gift for not wanting to be loved, not even wanting to be funny -- qualities that surely heralded a new wave of entertainers (many of them liars). But if this movie is a pedestal, it is far too tall and wide for a performer of Kaufman's stature. Let's not get carried away with the words "genius" and "brilliance" when our language also generously affords us terms such as "freak" and "flair."
Writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski are gifted scribes, especially when it comes to the portraiture of freaks with flair, and their collaboration has yielded the marvel that was Tim Burton's Ed Wood and their previous effort with Forman, The People vs. Larry Flynt. With Man on the Moon, this trilogy of entertainment weirdo stories -- managed handily enough by E! in most cases -- seems to be at a close, which is perhaps for the best. Where Ed Wood was a socks-off charmer and Larry Flynt a rather intriguing social document (often in spite of itself), both those films seemed to let their subjects off just a bit too easily, raising them too swiftly to legend-among-men status. Man on the Moon amps this reverence several notches, which doesn't entirely cripple the movie but frequently gives one cause to flinch or roll the eyes.
Then again, perhaps that's just what Andy would have wanted, and from the opening titles, featuring a reasonable (though not deeply convincing) physical mock-up of Kaufman (Jim Carrey, avec mole), onward, we are clearly alerted that this is a movie about Kaufman for people who love Kaufman. Carrey even intentionally wastes some of our time, squeaking soon thereafter that he did so "to get rid of everyone who doesn't care." Fair enough. Now tell your tale.
The tale in this case is semirags-to-semiriches, and it is approximately as weird as, say, The Jerk, except that 20 years ago Steve Martin was sort-of acting, presenting a metaphorical joke on himself, having already proved that he was one hell of a performance artist and a genuine song and dance man. Here, Jim Carrey is endeavoring to play straight the cartoonish events of Kaufman's real life. The result is a bit like the recent revival of Godzilla, raising B-level silliness to an inappropriate level through excessive sentimentality and nostalgia, and ...
Oh, right, the story. Kaufman grows up on Long Island, entertaining his preposterously cute little sister, then swiftly matures into a failing stand-up comic. Once he figures out that his act is less to entertain than to mess with everyone's minds as much as possible ("Would anybody like to pay a dollar to touch my cyst?"), the endless string of cutaways to the warm, fascinated smiles of the audience begins. Among those glowing visages is that of George Shapiro (Danny DeVito, though the real Shapiro co-produced), who instantly falls in love with Kaufman and kicks off his brief, tempestuous Hollywood career.
Once in Hollywood, things heat up for Kaufman, as Shapiro wrangles him a deal with an appropriately leering television boss (Vincent Schiavelli) to appear on Taxi, along with all the cast's regulars, who show up in a montage to play themselves. There are, however, several conditions, one of which is that Kaufman's friend? ... nemesis? ... id? ... Tony Clifton, a vulgar Vegas lounge, um, "singer," must appear on four episodes. The contracts are drawn up, and Kaufman, who hates sitcoms ("It's dead people laughing! Did you know that? Those people are dead!") dutifully punches the clock as Latka, which only serves to energize him in his less conventional pursuits, including his very weird (at the time) television special, resentful "comedy" shows (he reads the whole of The Great Gatsby in an affected English accent to an understandably perturbed audience), and wrestling matches against women. Pranks from Tony Clifton, assisted by Zmuda (Paul Giamatti), persist, reaching a fever pitch on Taxi, and Kaufman creates several large public debacles with pro wrestler Jerry Lawler, who plays himself. Lorne Michaels and David Letterman also weigh in as time-traveling versions of themselves.
Technically, it is worth noting that Forman's naturalistic touch and Patrizia von Brandenstein's spot-on production design have lent the movie a surprising sense of authenticity, perhaps even more challenging than their work on Amadeus or Ragtime; with Man on the Moon, they are working within the realm of recent memory. The sets in Vegas and Carnegie Hall are appropriately garish and memorable. It's a well-assembled movie. Sadly excluded is Kaufman's film work, but oh well.
The big question is: Does Jim Carrey pull it off? Answer: Yes, he sure does, to the best of his highly evolved ability. And good for him, as the meditation upon Kaufman's giddy, ego-tripping career and demise seems valuable. Back in 1983, for instance, when Kaufman was still alive, that monumentally funky little freak with flair then known as Prince was offered the chance to make his feature film debut in a biopic of the equally flamboyant Little Richard (a project that is finally under way). He turned it down and made his own story, Purple Rain, instead, and it made him a global superstar. But the years have shown that perhaps constantly playing oneself denies an Artist the reflection Carrey is gaining by lending his flesh to a kindred spirit.