Director Milos Forman and writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski make an ideal team. Forman makes movies so impossibly tasteful, so perfect in every meaningless detail, that he strangles the life out of everything he touches. Alexander and Karaszewski write screenplays about marginal, dangerous show business figures that are so intent on deifying their subjects that one loses any sense of what made their work compelling in the first place. The People vs. Larry Flynt, the team’s first collaboration, took a great subject – whatever else one says about him, Flynt is undeniably fascinating – and dodged every thorny issue it raised. It’s a gutless, sodden film, a tasteful film about bad taste.
Man on the Moon, their new biography of Andy Kaufman, is considerably worse. It fails miserably on every level: as biography (it mangles the facts and never comes close to illuminating what drove Kaufman), as entertainment (just try not to cringe as you watch Courtney Love wipe away tears) and as a recreation of Kaufman’s work (his best bits are trotted out and done, inadequately, by Jim Carrey).
Andy Kaufman was not really a comedian. He was a media terrorist, a prankster who used standup as an inroad to a mass audience. His best work was assaultive, multi-layered, and often deliberately perplexing and unfunny, far closer to Dada than Henny Youngman. His preoccupation with children’s entertainment and the silly sweetness of his best known character, Latka of the sit-com "Taxi," have helped erase the memory of the provocations at the heart of his career.
A typical Kaufman stunt, then, one thankfully not reproduced in Man On the Moon: at the peak of his fame, Kaufman did a guest spot on a Columbus, Ohio children’s show. A fake scientist, played by his writer/co-conspirator Bob Zmuda, began by lecturing a group of bored six year olds on the arcane subject of "psychogenesis" for several excruciating minutes. Kaufman then came out, forced Zmuda off the stage and entertained the children. Zmuda returned, railing at the kids: "You’re just a bunch of uneducated little brats! You wouldn’t know something of substance if it bit you on the ass!" The whole thing ended with a staged fist fight in front of the children, and an "apology" on the five o’clock news that ended with yet another fist fight. This is hostile, outrageous material, made even stranger by being staged for an unwitting audience of children in the media vacuum of a small Midwestern town: it’s no wonder that conceptual artists revere his work.
One would never know that Kaufman was an artist of such complexity and aggression from Man On the Moon. It offers instead an idiot savant who turned good-natured practical joking into a career. We do see his vicious alter ego, the unbelievably overbearing and talentless lounge singer "Tony Clifton," but these moments are carefully bracketed and explained away. Kaufman’s performances as Clifton were profoundly unsettling and anarchic; playing Clifton (while never owning up that it was him) seems to have allowed Kaufman (and later, Zmuda) free reign to behave atrociously. The film recreates the character but de-fangs him. This Clifton is obnoxious, yes, but not a sociopath. The film chooses the safe, the pedestrian, the cuddly in favor of the more unmanageable, difficult truth: Kaufman was irascible, his behavior inexplicable, and at his best, he defied the audience to keep up with his games.
Man on the Moon‘s performances range from bad to creepy. Carrey manages some of the surface details adequately – he looks and sounds roughly like Kaufman – but his painstaking recreations of Kaufman’s stage mannerisms never capture their weirdly unsettling quality. The precise, off-putting timing, the rigid posture, the quirky vocal tics are there, but drained of their essential oddity. Love, as Kaufman’s lover Lynn Marguiles, is nearly unwatchable. She plays exactly one emotion in each scene, and plays it broadly. Worse yet, Forman uses her as our surrogate, cutting to her reactions during Kaufman’s performances. Her responses are all but shouted out ("I’M MAD!" "NOW I’M INCREDULOUS!" "ISN’T HE JUST THE CUTEST?"), and they constrict our own reactions, prescribing to us the way Forman wants us to feel about the material. Paul Giamatti is passable as Zmuda, and Danny DeVito gets by as Kaufman’s mentor/manager, George Shapiro. The parade of cameos, however, is disconcerting and incoherent. Why cast Norm MacDonald as a young Michael Richards while making the cast of "Taxi" (aided, it seems, by all the makeup in the world) play themselves twenty years after the fact?
What’s saddest about this film is the impact it’s likely to have on Kaufman’s legacy. He worked in ephemeral media: live wrestling, talk shows, comedy clubs. One can find him in "Taxi" reruns, but this is compromised work that he rightly detested. Thirty years from now, who is likely to search out I’m From Hollywood! (the wonderful documentary about Kaufman’s wrestling, recently reissued by Rhino home video) or old "Saturday Night Live" footage when a lavish, big budget version with recognizable stars exists instead? Forman’s maddening film will become the way people find out about Kaufman, and there’s nothing in this inert, turgid mess to encourage anyone to look further.