Published January 1, 2000
Milos Forman’s Man on the Moon is worth seeing for two reasons. One is the remarkable performance of Jim Carrey as the late comic and performance artist (as we should call him today), Andy Kaufman. I confess that I have always numbered myself among the Carrey-skeptics, and cannot remember a single performance of his that I have liked very much or even found more than very intermittently funny. So out of synch am I with the Carrey persona that I think his best performance to date was the one that everyone else seems to consider the biggest disaster of his career, that in The Cable Guy. But as Andy Kaufman he shows a hitherto unsuspected depth and subtlety. It would be an injustice if he is not nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor.
The second reason why this picture is worth seeing is its resurrection of Kaufman himself, who died of cancer in 1984 at the age of 35—though sometimes one doubts that Forman quite knows what he’s got. Like Lenny Bruce in the generation before him (who also died young, of a heroin overdose), Kaufman was a truly subversive comic. Not glibly or cheaply subversive in the way that someone like Kevin Smith is in Dogma—that is, in kicking the stuffing out of the pieties that ceased being pieties nearly half a century ago among the class of those to whom his film appeals. Nobody who wanted to see Dogma in the first place could possibly be shocked by it, or moved by it to think differently from the way he thought when he bought his ticket.
But Bruce and Kaufman were both braver men, and Kaufman in some ways braver than Bruce. Lenny’s hipster audience may have been an embattled minority during the 50s and 60s, but at least they were always with him in his battles against the establishment. It was Kaufman’s genius in the 1970s to recognize that, by then, that establishment had been routed by the next generation—hippies rather than hipsters—and that the new establishment was itself in need of some serious needling from a man who was as fearless as he was funny. Maybe more so, as his brand of humor could often be a long way from conventionally funny. As he himself says at the beginning when he is fired from an unpaid job in a seedy bar: “I don’t do jokes. I don’t even know what’s funny. I’m a song and dance man.”
This is only slightly disingenuous. His real talent is for getting not easy laughter but a genuine emotional reaction from his audience, even if that reaction is anger or boredom. You’ve got to admire the sheer guts of a man who responds to a 1970s-era college audience braying for him to do his funny voice as “Latka” on “Taxi” by doggedly reading to them the whole of The Great Gatsby. It strikes me as being not merely coincidental that his aggressive willingness to disappoint an audience’s expectations could here be read as a reproof to a college generation, the first beneficiaries of the countercultural “revolution” in academe, who were interested in what Kaufman himself regarded as a stupid sitcom rather than the classics of American literature.
In the same way, there was more than just theatrics behind his deliberately provocative “sexist” remarks designed to produce female challengers to his self-conferred title as “Undisputed Intergender Wrestling Champion of the World.” Though it would be a mistake to call Kaufman a conservative in any recognizable sense, he instinctively recognized the power of conservatism to challenge what were already becoming the unexamined liberal orthodoxies of the dominant culture in America. The essence of Kaufman’s humor is its flirtation with embarrassment—the embarrassment felt by the audience in the face of what looks like a bad performance which shades into the scarier embarrassment at a possible breach of the protective sheath of illusion beneath which most performers work. You never really knew what was part of the show and what was not. Laughter comes when you think you see the joke. Oh yes, it’s all a put-on. Ha ha. But it is a forced laugh—we have to will ourselves to it—because we’re never really sure that it is a put on.
The fact that Kaufman died of cancer became a part of the myth. Forman shows him telling his closest associates, his agent, George Shapiro (Danny DeVito), his girlfriend, Lynne Margulies (Courtney Love) and his friend, writer and sometime alter ego Bob Zmuda (Paul Giamatti) of his illness and their immediately assuming it is part of his act. “Forget it,” says Shapiro. “That’s in terrible taste.” But Zmuda immediately sees the possibilities: “We could drag it out. . .You could get better, get worse; die, come back to life.” Naturally Forman seizes upon the lingering doubt in order to leave it an open question, in the end, whether or not Kaufman did die. But at the same time he is not blind to his legacy as the man who invented what is still, perhaps, the only way to make our jaded and madly over-entertained post-modern culture look at itself critically.