The Big Picture
Just as critics occasionally feel obliged to preface a review with a declaration of interest, so I must preface this review of Milos Forman's Man on the Moon, a biopic of the cult comic Andy Kaufman, by declaring a lack of interest. If there's one current cultural phenomenon which leaves me cold, it's the clown on the cutting edge, the "subversive" comedian whose ambition it is to "extend the boundaries of his craft", who is not, in short, content to step out before an audience and just tell jokes. Surely, if you aspire to change the world, you don't become something as frivolous as a stand-up comic in the first place? (I'm reminded of those weird gays who want to join the Marines.)
While I'm at it, I ought also to declare my indifference to Kaufman in particular. In this country he's recalled, if at all, as the fey, squeaky-voiced Latka of the 1980s' sitcom Taxi. Although it's his presence that most viewers remember best from the show, his whimsically "poetic" persona, Harpo to Danny De Vito's Groucho and Christopher Lloyd's Chico, always struck me as a pain. (It's only the French who regard Harpo as the Marx Brother, mostly because they can't keep up with Groucho's non-stop patter.) Never having been, in addition, a fan of Jim Carrey, I was scarcely what you'd call well disposed to Forman's film.
To admit now that I was wrong doesn't imply that Man on the Moon is any kind of masterwork. I called it a biopic, and a biopic is exactly what it is. It follows Kaufman's rollercoaster career in such a conventionally linear style - we're even shown, in an early scene, the infant Andy trying out precocious routines in his bedroom before an imaginary public - that it resembles a biography whose every paragraph begins "And then ..." And then Kaufman makes his debut in an amateur comedy club. And then he's spotted by a high-powered Hollywood agent. And then the agent secures him a role in Taxi. And then he creates mayhem on live television. And then ... And then ... And then he dies. (Kaufman, a non-smoker, succumbed in his mid-30s to a rare type of lung cancer.) And then the credit-titles unfold.
Cramped by this linearity, Forman never once penetrates his protagonist. He appears to want us to view Kaufman as a fascinating enigma and let it go at that. The trouble is that, as he becomes ever more enigmatic, as one mask is removed only for another to be revealed underneath it, we become correspondingly less fascinated and more frustrated, waiting in vain for clues to emerge as to the source and meaning of that enigma. This, to be fair, seems to be an intentional strategy. Kaufman was an indefatigable hoaxer, and we soon learn that little of what we are shown of his antics should be taken at face value. I must say no more; but if you enjoy David Mamet's movies about swindlers and conmen, you should enjoy Man on the Moon.
Carrey, I have to say, is brilliant, Kaufman to a T. When his routines are (I think) supposed to be embarrassing, they're just as embarrassing to us as to the audiences within the film; and when they're supposed to be funny, they're probably funnier than when Kaufman performed them. I especially cherished his Jimmy Carter impersonation. Carrey announces it in Kaufman's trademark chirrupy voice, clears his throat once or twice as if gearing up for a bout of tricky vocal wizardry, then mumbles in precisely the same voice, "Hello. I am Jimmy Carter, President of the United States." And that's it.
What Forman is good at is filming showbiz razzle-dazzle, backstage and front, upmarket and down, the lights, costumes, crowds, artifice and euphoria; and, unlike many a native-born American film-maker (Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone), he never falls into thetrap of believing that show business somehow "explains" America. Kaufman was and remained a marginal cult taste - which means that he was appreciated by relatively few people, but those few people liked him a lot - andthat's all he is and remains here.
Even more than show business itself, however, Forman has an unusual gift - and this has been a constant, right from his earliest work in Czechoslovakia, of his entire career (The Fireman's Ball, Taking Off, Amadeus) - for filming audiences. There's no one more adept than he at capturing off guard, as though in cinÃ©ma-veritÃ©, the endlessly shifting reactions of spectators in a theatre, now baffled, now nervously giggly, now patient, now not, wondering if what they're watching on stage is spontaneous or rehearsed, then brusquely convulsing into laughter when it dawns on them that they've been hoodwinked. There's one lovely scene in Man on the Moon when Kaufman devotes his whole act to a deadpan recitation, from the first to the last page, of The Great Gatsby. By the end, God knows how many hours later, a mere handful of mostly napping spectators remain in the auditorium. And, when he says, "The End", then wearily closes the book, one young man triumphantly cries out, "All right!"
I don't quite know why - as with the Jimmy Carter impersonation, I realise that it looks like nothing on the page - but it's simply wonderful. And all the best moments of this uneven but engaging film are those that are wonderful without one's ever being able to put into words why they are. In that sense, at least, Man on the Moon is faithful to the modest, easily overrateable but nevertheless unique talent of Andy Kaufman.