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MAN ON THE MOON

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Jim Carrey, Danny DeVito, Courtney Love, Paul Giamatti
Director:  Milos Forman
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Universal
Features:  See Review
Length:  119 Minutes
Release Date:  May 30, 2000

Film ****

One quote I always remember from Andy Kaufman was, “I’m not a comedian.  I never told a joke in my life.”  His comedy was something altogether different.  He took a tried and true entertainment medium and turned it into an art form.  Like all art, it pleased some and infuriated others, but like all the best artists, Andy pushed that envelope as far as he could, and in as many directions as possible.  His art, like his life, was one big experiment, where the mad scientist knows least of all what the end result might be.  In some ways, the experiment destroyed him.  In others, it made him immortal.  That is the enigma that Andy Kaufman remains to this day.

It is impossible to explain the appeal of Andy to those who don’t get it, and Man on the Moon doesn’t make the mistake of trying.  Instead, it settles into a wonderful cinematic place, as both story of and tribute to the man.  It honors the truth by not treading into treacherous waters of ‘what made Andy like that’.  As a performer who was always on, it’s impossible to finely separate the real from the unreal.  Perhaps that is as much a curse as a blessing.  At any length, fans of Andy would have clearly recognized the trail of fertilizer had the movie opted for that route.

Instead, the movie’s triumph is that it pays terrific stylistic tribute to Andy…just watch the opening and you’ll see what I mean.  Andy kept us guessing, and sometimes, the film does too.  Which is why it’s not a movie that’s going to please everybody.  You can get your money’s worth, but like Andy’s audience, you may have to show a little resilience and a little receptiveness in order to be entertained.

Not enough can be said about Jim Carrey’s performance…what he accomplished was astonishing, and one of those rare moments of movie magic where you really think you’re seeing a ghost come back to life.  This is not a comic’s imitation, but a legitimate actor’s realization.  The failure of the Academy to recognize Carrey’s efforts with a nomination is one of the body’s biggest blunders of recent years.

The film, after the aforementioned opening, follows Andy from his childhood and early shows into the national spotlight, where his new manager George Shapiro (DeVito) takes a chance on the unusual performer and helps launch his career.  There were the high points, including Saturday Night Live and Taxi, and the low points, mainly Kaufman’s obsessive pushing of his obnoxious lounge singer alter-ego Tony Clifton and the inter-gender wrestling, where he became the ultimate bad guy wrestler by only wrestling women.  Interestingly enough, that latter charade has grown more and more brilliant with age, though his contemporary audiences didn’t know what to make of it, which led in great part to the ruination of his career.

He delighted in being a step ahead of the audience.  He didn’t tell them a joke, he made them part of the joke.  When he cried wolf and the people ate it up, that was as good as it got for him.  In many ways, he was a comic for posterity…it takes hindsight to appreciate how masterfully he manipulated us and kept us going.  We can marvel at his chutzpah reading The Great Gatsby cover to cover before a college audience; but think of how angry we would have been to be part of that crowd!

But crying wolf comes with a price and heavy moral lesson, and for Andy, the poignancy came way too early in his life.  In one of the film’s best and most potent scenes, he tries to confess to his closest friends that he has contracted a rare kind of terminal cancer…and they can’t quite believe him.  Doctors talk to his family, and his own brother and sister smirk at the ‘gag’.  Andy withered away before the eyes of the entire world, and the entire world waited for the punchline…and to applaud the curtain call that would never come.  To this day, some of those who were closest to him aren’t entirely sure that it wasn’t a joke.  Is it a sad thing that a man’s death be taken so disrespectfully, or is it Andy’s last laugh on us, that some people still wonder about it to this day?  You be the judge.

One of Milos Forman’s gifts as a director is the sense of impartial judgement he brings to his real life protagonists.  His pervious picture, The People vs. Larry Flynt, was a prime example.  He took a celebrity and told his story as straight as possible, but never attempted to make the audience think one way or another about him.  Whatever opinion you had of Flynt going in was the opinion you would walk away with.

He accomplishes the same feat with Andy Kaufman in this film.  As mentioned before, whether you love Andy or hate him, this movie is not going to change your mind.  In fact, for those who don’t like Andy, this movie could seem like a waste of two hours.

But Andy clearly left a mark on those whose lives he touched…look at the number of original cast members of Taxi who showed up to be little more than extras in this film.  Or David Letterman, who, along with wrestler Jerry Lawler, faithfully recreated one of television’s most disruptive and memorable events.  Or the fact that his long suffering manager Shapiro served as an executive producer for the film. The movie could have been made without them, or with other talent, but these people wanted to relive their experiences with Andy and pay one last tribute to their fallen friend.

Video **1/2

I’m a little disappointed in this anamorphic transfer from Universal, but I have a theory…it’s well documented how much disc space a DTS soundtrack takes up, and this DVD contains one (as well as Dolby Digital), plus a two hour movie and quite a few extras.  Something had to give a little bit, and here, it was the picture quality that suffered.  Though far from unwatchable, there is quite a bit more noticeable softness in the imaging, where you’d normally expect crispness, and more than one instance of color bleeding.  There is also some occasional grain and compression evident in the form of some ringing around the edges.  Personally, I’d rather see studios release a separate DVD for DTS fans, as some have done in the past.  Two 5.1 soundtracks on one disc is a bit much, and DTS takes up too much precious disc space:  dual versions can still give customers the choice, but without the necessity of an overall poorer presentation.  But that’s just my opinion.

Audio ***

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is perfectly fine, and quite good in many parts.  The .1 speaker is not used much, if at all, but there are many performance scenes with big audiences (TV shows, comedy concerts, wrestling) which access the rear channels and create a nice ambient sound.  Much of the dialogue and music is spread across the forward stage with no clarity problems.

Features ***1/2

Though not a Collector’s Edition per se, Universal delivers the goods with the extras on this disc.  The Spotlight on Location featurette is quite good, as are the deleted scenes (some of which have become underground legends).  There is an interactive story of Andy Kaufman complete with accessible video clips, a trailer, production notes, talent files, an extra trailer for the upcoming sequel to The Nutty Professor, and some DVD ROM extras.

Summary:

His name is Andy, and this is his movie…a stylistic, funny, touching, honest bravura exercise in biopic filmmaking that captures and preserves, without spoiling, the enigma that was Andy Kaufman.