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Was He Having Fun?

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*Man on the Moon (R)
Universal Pictures

This strange and ultimately affecting movie is the rather perfunctorily told tale of comic Andy Kaufman's short, brilliant career and short, bizarre life. Kaufman rose to fame in the '70s and early '80s, first with short spots on the budding Saturday Night Live, then as a co-star of the long-running TV sitcom, Taxi. In 1984, at the age of 39, he died of a rare form of lung cancer.

Eccentric and enigmatic, Kaufman engaged audiences by fooling them. He was a chameleon: an eastern European immigrant, a wrestler, an Elvis impersonator, an erudite scholar, a lounge lizard. So successful was he at faking out his audiences, when he became terminally ill, even his own family members and closest friends didn't believe his announcement that he had cancer. And following his actual death, the media and fans repeatedly foresaw his resurrection, figuring his demise was staged.

In the hands of director Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The People vs. Larry Flynt) Kaufman is treated as a rare genius who was misunderstood. That may be true, but what we come to know of Kaufman in Forman's treatment is little more than the comic and stage personas of Kaufman revealed publicly in his lifetime. Offstage, Kaufman never gives up the game, and we come to see him as a lonely misfit who realized too late that his gags had alienated him from the rest of humanity.

It is fitting that Kaufman be played by Jim Carrey, the great gagster of his generation, someone who would no doubt have worshipped at the altar of Andy's weirdness. Carrey's depiction is physically uncanny -- he perfectly captures Kaufman's googly eyes and frumpy posture, and mimics precisely many of Kaufman's best-known skits.

But the writing and direction of Man on the Moon is largely pedestrian. We might have expected Forman, or any director taking on Kaufman, to engage the audience in more of a head game, to mess with us the way Kaufman messed with his audiences. Not so. Except for a lame attempt at a fake-out in the opening sequence, the story is told as straight screen biography -- here's Andy as a kid on Long Island; now as a young stand-up in comedy clubs; now in his first television appearance; now venturing into wrestling; now with his girlfriend; now ill; now dead.

Backstage scenes are provided to offer us insight into Kaufman's motivation, but they feel like props for the narrative more than glimpses into the man. As told here, these scenes feel less than genuine, less than substantial.

Only in the latter scenes, when Kaufman is irreversibly ill, do we sense an emotional breakthrough, in the few shining moments in the film where Carrey's brave performance transcends the mundane course of the narrative and the predictable direction.

There is a wonderful scene where Kaufman travels to the Phillippines to be treated by a psychic surgeon who, apparently, reaches through human flesh to pull out tumors with her bare hands. While on the table, the great mimic realizes that the surgeon is merely wringing bloody chicken organs over his skin, that the appearance of penetration is all sleight of hand. He begins to laugh, nervously at first, then with abandon, when he realizes he has been fooled by a sister of his own skin -- a charlatan, a master faker.

The memorable pleasure of seeing Andy Kaufman perform, when he was alive, depended heavily on the element of surprise. Anyone who was watching that first Saturday Night Live episode, when he came out and stood silently, eyes rolling, through the Mighty Mouse theme song, lip-synching only one line -- "Here I come to save the day!" -- understands this, and will also understand that seeing these bits repeated just doesn't have the same effect.

And that dilemma ultimately cripples Man on the Moon. Apparently there was little about the man that was not revealed in his highly visible career, so we are left largely with reprises of material that was startlingly original, sometimes shocking, when it was happening, but loses impact in retrospect.

See the film for Carrey's terrific impersonation, and for the moments on screen when, even if just for a brief moment, you can feel Kaufman's inexplicable spirit leaking through.

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