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MAN ON THE MOON

by: Scott Renshaw

In the first moments of Man on the Moon's splendidly inventive prologue, Jim Carrey says, "Hello ... I am Andy." And for two hours, he is. There is no way to describe Carrey's performance as Andy Kaufman in Milos Forman's bio-pic except to say that Carrey inhabits Kaufman. When he plays Kaufman's squeaky-voiced immigrant character, which will become "Taxi's" Latka, he's pitch perfect; when he dives into one of Kaufman's deliberately provocative stage routines, he captures a mind of lunatic inventiveness at work. Carrey's work may be the best, most effective extended impression in film history.

The astonishing thing about Man on the Moon is how entertaining it is despite the fact that there's very little to it but Carrey's extended impression. After a brief glimpse of Kaufman's childhood in Long Island, Man on the Moon dives into his early days as a stand-up comedy performer who befuddles and aggravates his audiences as often as he makes them laugh. He is undeniably unique, however, a fact that grabs the attention of super-agent George Shapiro (Danny DeVito). Shapiro sees stardom in Kaufman, stardom Kaufman himself claims he wants. There's just the small matter of Kaufman's insistence on pushing himself, his act and his audience farther than they've ever gone before. Even as "Taxi" makes him famous, his stunts -- including an open-ended challenge to beat any woman in wrestling -- make him harder and harder for many people to take.

Hard to take, perhaps, but impossible to ignore. It's also impossible to deny that Man on the Moon owes most of its entertainment value to Kaufman himself, since the film's biggest laughts come from re-creations of Kaufman's outrageous performances. We see his faux-nervous "Saturday Night Live" lip-synch to the "Mighty Mouse" theme; we see his running feud with wrestler Jerry Lawler (playing himself) that pre-sages the popularity of professional wrestling as scripted antagonism; and we see plenty of Kaufman's doppleganger, abrasive Vegas lounge singer Tony Clifton. When a college audience demands "Latka!," Kaufman responds with a reading in its entirety of The Great Gatsby. Watching Carrey-as-Kaufman reach for the edges without anything resembling a net is exhilarating. Kaufman's routines still have the ability to inspire gasping laughter.

The only question remaining -- and the one for which Man on the Moon has no answer -- is who Andy Kaufman really was, and what he really was trying to accomplish in his career. The script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski casts a similar rosy glow over its subject as their scripts for Ed Wood and The People Vs. Larry Flynt, making the film more of an homage to driven eccentricity than piercing character study. It may be true, as Kaufman's girlfriend Lynne (Courtney Love) says to him in one scene, that "there is no real you," but that doesn't make the absence of insight any less disapppointing. While Man on the Moon's performance set pieces are dazzling, in a sense they never end. It's a portrait of an entire life lived as performance art, when you keep hoping for at least a glimpse behind the curtain.

There are moments during the film's final half hour, when Kaufman is coping with cancer -- and with the boy-who-cried-wolf repercussions as his friends and family doubt that he is really sick -- that we begin to see a self-aware Andy. In one of the film's best moments, a trip to a Philippine "psychic surgery" clinic becomes an ironic revelation that attempts to delude others can go too far. With just a few more moments like that, Man on the Moon might have been a classic film biography. Maybe ultimately it's just a showpiece -- for Kaufman's decades-ahead-of-his-time genius, and for Carrey's dynamic rendering of that genius. Maybe it's just a grand illusion without an easily-understood human being behind it. And maybe, in a story about the life o

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