At one point in “Man on the Moon,” this bigscreen biopic of Andy Kaufman recounts the moment when the late comic was dropped from the cast of “Saturday Night Live” based on a poll finding that only 28% of the audience wanted him to remain on the show. Universal will be lucky if that many people whose curiosity lures them to check out Jim Carrey’s oddest career move actually like it. The film never comes close to making the case that its subject is worthy of the viewer’s interest, that he was anything more than a weird footnote to showbiz history. As tale is likely to prove enticing only to rabid Kaufmanites and industry insiders, Universal should look for sizable B.O. fallout once the initial Carrey crowd checks it out.
Given their idiosyncratic treatments of the lives of Ed Wood and Larry Flynt, there was reason to hope that the lively approach of screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski would give dimension and distinction even to the unlikely figure of Kaufman, by all accounts a strange man, who made a name for himself in the TV series “Taxi” and died in 1984 of cancer at the age of 35. But in addition to failing to get a fix on Kaufman, the script sorely lacks shape and a dynamic, and pic gives no sense of the passing of time. All the audience is left with is the impression of a thoroughly obnoxious man you’d never want to meet in real life, a hopeless neurotic of little discernible talent other than for making the lives of those around him miserable.
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Perhaps the film’s best minutes come in the opening sequence, a black-and-white performance piece in which Carrey’s Kaufman apologizes (prophetically) to the audience for the film being bad and announces, “This is the end of the movie,” whereupon the final credits start to roll as Kaufman plays a record. It’s a bizarre little intro brimming with the promise of absurdist lunacy, promise that is never subsequently approached or fulfilled.
Quick biographical droppings suggest that the Long Island, N.Y.-bred Kaufman was an early blooming weirdo whose initial forays in performing were met with the same quizzical reactions that greeted him throughout his brief career. Despite difficulties in pigeonholing Kaufman’s talent and the performer’s own protestations that “I’m not a comedian. I don’t do jokes. I don’t even know what’s funny,” Hollywood agent George Shapiro (Danny DeVito) takes him on and gets him a “Saturday Night Live” gig. This quickly leads to the offer to join “Taxi,” which Shapiro has to goad Kaufman into because the latter professes to hate sitcoms.
On “Taxi,” Kaufman is seen as a highly disruptive prima donna, especially in his insistence upon special guest appearances by his gross and vulgar Las Vegas character, Tony Clifton, which he concocted with friend and writer Bob Zmuda (Paul Giamatti). “Taxi” co-stars Marilu Henner and Judd Hirsch appear as themselves, and Peter Bonerz plays show’s director. Show’s co-star DeVito is otherwise occupied in the picture, which quickly loses sight of the popular series; at the end, one has no idea Kaufman actually stuck with the show for six years.
The nature of Kaufman’s personal attachments remain as sketchy as his career affiliations. Although Zmuda was the comic’s closest collaborator, the man comes out of nowhere and it’s never shown how they got on the same productive wavelength. Kaufman, whose presence is so irritating that he’s even kicked out of his transcendental meditation group, seems bereft of true personal connections, and certainly of a romantic life, until he meets Lynne Margulies (Courtney Love), who eventually moves in with him.
But even this relationship has a shaky foundation. Script’s key exchange has Kaufman complaining to his g.f., “You don’t know the real me.” “There isn’t a real you,” she says. “Oh yeah. I forgot,” he sheepishly replies, revealing the film’s central insight: There was no there there. Kaufman’s admirers always marvel at how he never broke character, pointing out that, once he assumed the guise of Foreign Man or Tony Clifton, he stuck with it no matter how he was bombing or how much audience abuse he suffered.
The same can be said of Carrey as Kaufman. Once again stretching his acting muscles to inhabit a singular sort of innocent, Carrey gives every indication of having plunged himself very, very deeply into Kaufman and his various personae. On the one hand, it’s a virtuoso turn that unerringly captures the behavioral quirkiness and disquieting vacantness of the man he’s portraying; on the other, there is only so far the performance can go, since true psychological penetration is essentially impossible in Kaufman’s case.
The narrative proceeds in clunky fashion through Kaufman’s dubious performance period of wrestling women, his career-capping performance at Carnegie Hall (followed by a milk-and-cookies reception) and premature death. Cinematically, this is undoubtedly Milos Forman’s drabbest and least inventive film; even the period details of the late ’70s-mid-’80s seem rote and uninteresting, as if Forman has now gone to the well of American culture’s recent past once too often.
Late in the proceedings, the agent Shapiro exclaims, “Andy, you’re the king of negative energy.” Unfortunately, it’s a truth that saps all the considerable talents involved in this film.