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[whitespace] Jim Carrey

The Man from Caspiar

Jim Carrey moons over comedian Andy Kaufman in 'Man on the Moon'

By Richard von Busack

MAN ON THE MOON is the story of the comedian Andy Kaufman (1949-84), whose peak of fame was a dialect bit on the popular television show Taxi. Kaufman's various appearances on variety shows, comedy clubs and Merv Griffin demonstrated the craft of a master prankster, a performance artist masquerading as a comedian. Man on the Moon casts a spell that's hard to shake, at first. Even after seeing the movie done, it's hard to believe it has been done. Really, the feeling of walking out of this movie is like coming out of Alex Cox's movie Sid and Nancy: You're touched that someone else remembered what seemed like a forgotten moment, and at the same time disturbed by seeing a story that seemed too special for the subject of a mass-market movie.

Director Milos Forman hedged the gamble by giving the Kaufman story the usual structure of a counterculture showbiz bio. We see the rise of Kaufman, played by Jim Carrey, his oppression by the uncomprehending squares, love with a kindred spirit, played by Courtney Love, and early death. On the whole, this is a much more enjoyable picture than Forman's The People vs. Larry Flynt--it is about a more amiable figure, and the film isn't stretched out into a long spectacle of decline. There's less Courtney and less cancer in this movie than you might have been dreading. Still, the conventionality of Man on the Moon undercuts the impact of the kind of comedy Kaufman did. It suggests that his feel-good appearance at Carnegie Hall was the climax of his life, when actually his meaner work might have summed him up better.

Kaufman was famous for Latka, his foreigner bit on Taxi (he explained once, "I am from Caspiar. It is a small island in the Caspian Sea. It sank.") He debuted the character on Saturday Night Live, changing from cheeping, demotic English into a dead-fine Elvis impersonation. Carrey shortens the routine, sweetening it; he is so dedicated to being a nice guy on screen that he doesn't understand how good Kaufman's Elvis impersonation was--when Carrey imitates Kaufman imitating Elvis (love these post-modern times) it's just karaoke. Whereas there was something really mean and aggressive in Elvis that Kaufman understood, probably because that same cruelty dwelled in Kaufman as well.

What about the other actors? Danny DeVito, who co-produced, plays the comedian's manager as a good guy. Making this movie was an act of generosity, since Kaufman was such a pain in the ass on the set of DeVito's old show Taxi. Against the scenes of the mercurial, goofy Kaufman, the solidity of professional wrestler Jerry Lawler (playing himself) is also refreshing.

Man on the Moon is far too cool to weep at. After a few hours its mood dispels; you stop hearing the REM theme song lingering in your head. As Carrey shows us Kaufman, he's too suffused with moon-man otherworldliness to make us feel a loss at his death, really. Still, what a weirdly triumphant tale--a man obsessed with putting on the audience, who was so successful that his obituary seemed like another of his sick jokes. The man lived like a swashbuckler, and an early death is no shame for someone in that line of work.

Man on the Moon (R; 118 min.) Directed by Milos Forman, written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski and starring Jim Carrey, Danny DeVito and Courtney Love, plays in Capitola at 41st Av. Playhouse, and in Santa Cruz at the Rio Theater.

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From the December 29, 1999 - January 5, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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