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Friday, June 23, 2000

'MAN ON THE MOON'

The sound of no hands clapping


Wacko-comedian Andy Kaufman was always a fringe figure, despite a brief fling with the mainstream on the popular '70s TV series "Taxi," where he played the strangely accented nebbish Latka. Truth be told, his audience-unfriendly career was already sinking into obscurity even before his untimely death in 1984.

As such, Kaufman may not seem like promising subject matter for a mainstream bio-pic. Then again, neither did porno-publisher Larry Flynt, and director Milos Forman made quite a compelling film out of him. With "Man on the Moon" (named after an R.E.M. song dedicated to the comedian), Forman takes us inside the twisted world of Kaufman (as played by current king of comedy, Jim Carrey), and reveals a cunning method behind the madness.

Certainly, this wasn't clear at the time. Kaufman was notorious for leaving audiences wondering if they "got it" -- his routines were as likely to draw puzzled silence as applause. One such classic involved Kaufman playing the "Mighty Mouse" theme song on a tiny record player and waiting patiently until a certain point in the song, when he would leap to his feet and enthusiastically lip-sync the single line, "Here he comes to save the day!"

As is clear from this example, Kaufman was always on the verge of making audiences truly dislike him, whether through some crap crooning as his alter-ego, the obnoxious lounge singer Tony Clifton, or through beating up female wrestlers in the ring and boasting about it. When Kaufman's routines worked, they invited laughter out of scorn for such an inept attempt at stage charisma; when they failed, it was largely for the same reasons.

The film follows Kaufman's career from his early days doing twisted standup in L.A. nightclubs to appearances on Saturday Night Live and his regular gig on "Taxi" in the '70s. It covers Kaufman's fruitful relationship with his cowriter Bob Zmuda (Paul Giamatti) and agent George Shapiro (Danny DeVito, Kaufman's real-life costar on "Taxi"), and his marriage to Lynne Margulies (Courtney Love), a wrestler who Kaufman meets during his act (in yet another of many crossovers between his onstage and offstage personae).

There's no happy end here, though, as the film closes with Kaufman's dire days in the '80s, when he became more a figure of ridicule, and viewed as an unemployable and unpredictable nut case. Topping this off was a case of terminal lung cancer, which -- since he didn't smoke -- left many fans claiming that Kaufman's "death" was simply the most successful of his many put-ons.

Boldly, for a bio-pic, "Man on the Moon" doesn't try to play down Kaufman's provocative, abrasive edge. The film paints a complex figure who dreams of stardom as a boy, but is unable to accept it graciously as an adult. Unlike "The People vs. Larry Flynt," Forman doesn't bother trying to find any greater social significance in this tale. Instead, he's happy just to celebrate Kaufman's stubborn adherence to his own vision, an individual whose bizarre creative impulses resisted all the temptations of success that L.A. had to offer. In this light, there's a direct line to be drawn between this film and Forman's earlier classic, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." (Indeed, in less tolerant times, Kaufman's behavior was the sort that could have gotten him committed to an asylum.)

Much has been said about Jim Carrey's unnervingly accurate portrayal of Kaufman, with even friends of Andy admitting it was eerie. Not only is the physical transformation remarkable, but also Carrey's embrace of a comedic style far removed from his own. If "The Truman Show" revealed a new side of Carrey, then "Man on the Moon" shows he has the ability to reinvent himself completely.

To be sure, "Man on the Moon" has a lot going for it, but there is one letdown. With the real Andy Kaufman, the delicious tension in his act came from how he made it inextricable from his "real life" -- one never knew when Kaufman was being serious or taking the piss, what was "put-on" and what was "for real."

The best example of this came in a notorious appearance on the U.S. TV talk show "Late Night with David Letterman" (re-created in the film). Wearing a neck brace after an onstage injury sustained at the hands of professional wrestler Jerry Lawler, Kaufman appeared on the show to petulantly whine and fume and denounce the wrestler. Lawler appeared as well, showing video tapes Kaufman had sent him that were gratuitously insulting, calling him a stupid redneck. Kaufman ran onto the stage and tossed a cup of hot coffee onto Lawler, and mayhem ensued.

At the time, viewers were convinced that Kaufman had indeed lost it in public; the movie tells us it was all a hoax. While this may make us respect Kaufman's audaciousness and creative cunning even more, a bit of the magic is gone. "Man on the Moon" shows us the "man behind the curtain," and that's not necessarily a good thing. Sometimes a good legend should be left undisturbed.

Still, while we didn't really need to know the "how" behind Kaufman's act, we can still marvel at the "why." It's interesting to note that Forman's film never really attempts to "explain" Kaufman, the urges that drove him, or his need to provoke his audience (unlike, say, Oliver Stone's portrait of Jim Morrison). For such obdurate eccentricity, such willful madness, there can be no explanation. The mystery remains, fascinating and oblique, and that is as it should be.

"Man on the Moon" is playing at Chanter Cine in Hibiya and other theaters.


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