Man on the Moon (R) No Rating

Review Date: December 22nd, 1999

Those looking for answers about enigmatic entertainer Andy Kaufman won't find them in the biopic "Man on the Moon." Director Milos Forman and writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski don't reveal much about the man that isn't already a matter of record.

Instead, they focus their energies toward capturing his spirit and legacy. Aided by an astounding star turn from Jim Carrey, they come closer than one would expect at bringing the performer back to life, 15 years after his untimely death from lung cancer.

Kaufman was only 35 when he died, but he had been infamous for years. Cursory fans knew him best as the lovable foreign mechanic Latka on television's "Taxi," but the entertainer's repertoire was more diverse, eccentric and guaranteed to provoke than any primetime sitcom fare. Over the years, the unpredictable prankster shocked fans and nonfans by engaging in wrestling matches with women, disrupting live television broadcasts and insulting audience members under the guise of alter-ego Tony Clifton, an obnoxious, vulgar lounge singer.

The miracle of the movie is Carrey's assimilation into the role. He doesn't play the entertainer as much as become him. As the performer's various personae, Carrey is a living, breathing embodiment of Kaufman. His scenes mouthing the "Mighty Mouse" theme on "Saturday Night Live," wrestling professional Jerry Lawler and getting rowdy on "The David Letterman Show" ring with an eerie authenticity. Carrey captures the consistency of a man who never stopped performing. At the end, the film conveys a sense that Kaufman was as much a mystery to himself as he was to the rest of the world.

Carrey fans may be somewhat taken aback by the portrayal. There's not much "Ace Ventura" or "Dumb and Dumber" in Kaufman's antics, but there is a common spirit of reckless abandon. Carrey rallied hard for the role, and it's not hard to see where the two performers might identify. Carrey's humor doesn't depend on unpredictable shocks, but he's also famous for outrageous impersonations that have little to do with his identity outside entertainment.

Besides being a showcase of the highlights in Kaufman's career, the film presents the comic's backstage relationship with agent George Shapiro (Danny DeVito) and to a lesser degree, partner Bob Zmuda (Paul Giamatti) and longtime girlfriend Lynne Margulies (Courtney Love). It's clear from these scenes that Kaufman abhorred anything that remotely resembled the obvious gimmick. It took some convincing before he agreed to star on "Taxi," and only on the condition that his alter ego would be able to make guest appearances.

It's also clear that Kaufman wasn't an easy co-worker. The film doesn't shy away from his tirades on the "Taxi" set or his constant tinkering with executives who would never understand the reason why he would fool with the vertical control for his television special. They also wouldn't get his peculiar stage behavior, once reading "The Great Gatsby" to an audience until they got up and left. The genius for Kaufman fans wasn't his desire to please but to provoke in new, original ways.

Opening with a brilliant introduction from Kaufman directly to the audience, Forman's movie is a hilarious representation of the man's sensibility, and an intentional conundrum. What made Andy Kaufman tick? The world will never know, and maybe he didn't, either.

Forman does present him with a few human traits. Near the end of the film, the cancer-stricken Kaufman throws together a holiday special at Carnegie Hall, complete with milk and cookies for everyone. Kaufman is further shown to have visited a holistic healer for his condition. The joke on him was that by the time he got sick, it was hard to get anyone to believe him.

That fact could be seen as tragic, but as presented by the real sing-along at his funeral, and the film and Carrey's treatment of Kaufman, his real identity was secondary to what he was able to accomplish. It didn't matter whether you loved or hated his act. Either way, it was hard to forget him.

* MPAA rating: R, for language and brief sexuality/nudity.

"Man on the Moon"

Jim Carrey: Andy Kaufman

Danny DeVito: George Shapiro

Paul Giamatti: Bob Zmuda

Courtney Love: Lynn Margulies

Gerry Becker: Stanley Kaufman

A Universal presentation. Director Milos Forman. Screenplay Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. Producers Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher. Director of photography Anastas Michos. Editors Christopher Tellefsen, Adam Boome and Lynzee Klingman. Music R.E.M. Production designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein. Costume designer Jeffrey Kurland. Art director James Truesdale. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.