Chris Smith's on-set documentary about Jim Carrey channeling Andy Kaufman is a ticklish meditation on comedy and identity.
When it was announced in the late ’90s that Jim Carrey had been chosen to play Andy Kaufman in a major Hollywood biopic, my gut reaction was skepticism. Carrey, then at the height of his star power, was a brilliant comedian who had more than proved his acting chops (in “The Truman Show”), yet both temperamentally and ethnically he seemed wrong for the part: Kaufman was a doughy nerdy Jewish space cadet, Carrey a hypomanic string-bean WASP. I knew that Carrey had the talent to “impersonate” anyone, but could he really merge with Kaufman’s antic yet morose there-but-not-quite-there quality?
When I saw the film, I became one of its greatest champions (it wound up being my movie of the year for 1999), and Carrey’s extraordinary performance vaulted over all my doubts. In “Man on the Moon,” he nailed every nuance of Andy Kaufman’s spirit, and he used his own mercurial quality as a comic to tease out the secret of Kaufman’s genius, which is that he wasn’t just some dada TV art prankster crafting stunts to mess with your head. And he didn’t just want to make you laugh, either. He wanted to leave you amazed. He was, in that way, the very soul of showbiz.
Carrey, a jaw-dropping comic trailblazer of his own, grasped all that; that’s why he captured Kaufman so profoundly. But it wasn’t until I saw Chris Smith’s ticklish and captivating documentary “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond — featuring a very special, contractually obligated mention of Tony Clifton,” that I realized what the two comedic visionaries actually had in common. Andy Kaufman’s comedy emerged from his pathological role-playing, which was built around his weak sense of identity and his consuming need to create one. It turns out that Jim Carrey overlapped him in that department quite a bit.
Carrey’s comedy, too, erupted out of him like an alternate personality, and he grew up riddled with insecurities (like a lot of performers). But once he got famous, something inside him snapped. Nice, grinning, friendly Canadian Jim divided off from dark, weird, troubled, who-am-I? Jim. Channeling Andy Kaufman was a catharsis for him, because it put him in touch with his inner split personality.
“Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond” is built around 20 hours of candid footage of Carrey on the “Man on the Moon” set that was shot, originally, for use in an electronic press kit, then placed in the vault by Universal Pictures. Smith, the director of “American Movie,” “Collapse,” “The Yes Men,” and other maverick documentaries (or maybe I should say documentaries about mavericks), got access to the footage, which he combines with an extensive present-day interview with Carrey, in which the actor-comedian, with laughing eyes and a graying beard as thick and Santa Clausy as David Letterman’s (though Carrey’s gives him a slight Mansonite aura), looks back, with candor and eloquence, over not just the Kaufman film but the tangled ins and outs of his own career.
On the set of “Man on the Moon,” he went full Daniel Day-Lewis, staying in character when the cameras were turned off. This meant, much of the time, that he was sweet, mild, tentative Andy and therefore easy to deal with. But it also meant that when the salty-tempered professional wrestler Jerry Lawler showed up to do his scenes, Carrey-as-Andy would harass him in the same way that Kaufman used to — except that as we see, the mockery was even more scathing. In the ’80s, Kaufman and Lawler went at each other like a blue red/red state nuclear meltdown, but Lawler was in on the joke; off camera, as he explains on the set, Kaufman was nice as pie. That’s what he expected from Carrey, but instead Carrey would push Lawler’s buttons, asking him if he’d stolen his bejeweled cape from Elvis or saying “Once again, proving Darwin’s theory…” He kept pushing them, even after he’d crossed the line, provoking Lawler to fits of rage. To stay in character, Carrey, as Kaufman, became a Method pest.
Then, of course, there’s Tony Clifton. The portly, grunting, stupendously coarse and vulgar lounge lizard, in his pastel tuxedos and sunglasses he never took off, with his lips jutting out, his whole coiffed head bent forward like a broken telescope, was Kaufman’s greatest creation. He was an “entertainer” with the personality of a Bronx cab driver, an insult comic who hurled insults at people that barely rose to the level of comedy. But that become a loose-cannon id for Kaufman, who was liberated by the disguise. There was something so authentic about Tony — he was every fourth-rate Vegas nightclub host of the ’60s rolled into one seedy ball of non-talent — that he literally took on an identity of his own. Kaufman and his partner Bob Zmuda would take turns putting on the elaborate jowly makeup and playing him, so that Tony was more than a walking bad joke about a guy who told bad jokes. He simply…existed. (Which just heightened the joke.)
In “Jim & Andy,” we watch Carrey submerge himself in the cantankerous, growly Clifton mystique. On the days when they’re shooting Tony Clifton scenes, he refuses to break character, forcing Miloš Forman to give direction to this stunted, exhausting man who will not listen to a thing he says. Carrey, like Andy, revels in taking the joke too far. We see priceless footage of the night that Tony showed up at the Playboy Mansion and partied with Hugh Hefner, who thought that he was in on the joke; he presumed that he was hosting Jim Carrey. And then, after two hours, into the party walks…Jim Carrey! Hef turns white as a sheet, and Tony Clifton gets booted out of the party. But at that moment, he lives.
“Jim & Andy” is fleetly edited and engrossing, animated by a sense of discovery. Chris Smith, an intensely personal filmmaker, has never worked in this sprawling mode of multi-media, celebrity-centered documentary classicism, and he turns out to be a natural at it. In 90 minutes, he tells Jim Carrey’s story, tells Andy Kaufman’s story, and meditates on the resonant way that they interfaced. We see startling clips of Carrey when he was high school, trying out impersonations of Steve Martin, Jimmy Carter, and James Dean (his face literally becomes Dean’s), plus the “Saturday Night Live” audition he did in 1980 (Carrey tells a great story about how he knew it was doomed) and the one that Kaufman did for “SNL” in 1975. (He just sat there and tried to think of something to say.)
Smith interviews Carrey the same way that he did the dystopian journalist Michael Ruppert in “Collapse” — one direct shot, never varying, a kind of Errol Morris approach — and it works beautifully, since Carrey is a hypnotic talker who opens himself up to the camera. He has a stoned Zen view of life that’s easy to mock but is, in fact, quite reality-based, and he’s up front about what an immersive toll the Kaufman movie took on him. After it wrapped, R.E.M. tried to get Carrey to go back into his Kaufman guise to shoot the video for “The Great Beyond,” and he refused. Once he’d disentangled himself from Andy, he couldn’t take going back.
“Man on the Moon” remains one of the most misunderstood great movies of the ’90s (a lot of people just saw it as Carrey doing Kaufman’s greatest hits), because it’s really about how Andy Kaufman sacrificed his identity to showbiz — and, in doing so, became a herald for the age when entertainment would consume everything in its path, from our dreams to our identities. When Kaufman wrestled women, coming on like Bobby Riggs on steroids and taunting the redneck crowds who turned out to see him, was it a put-on or was it a deep-down reflection of “the real Andy”? Actually, it was the real Andy pretending to be what he hated, and realizing that he loved being that way, but mostly because of the reaction it provoked.
Except that he cherished that reaction more than anything, so maybe it was the real him. Or maybe there was no real him. In one of the greatest scenes in “Man on the Moon,” Carrey, as Kaufman, as Tony Clifton gets up on stage and does his unspeakable rendition of “I’ve Gotta Be Me.” It’s bottom-of-the-barrel sentimental showbiz hooey, but it’s all built around a conundrum: Who, exactly, is me? “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond” shows you that the answer is a grand illusion.