Andy Kaufman always seemed like the ideal subject of a biopic. An actor, comedian, and notorious prankster, the multi-talented entertainer died of cancer in 1984 at age 35. This gave his career a short and tragic arc — one that has always been shadowed by half-suspicions that the prank-happy performer may have faked his own death. In December of 1999, we got a biopic called Man on the Moon; it starred Jim Carrey, who was not far off from his peak movie stardom at that point, and was directed by one of the most accomplished directors of the period, Milos Forman.
The film, however, was a bit of a box office flop, getting slightly above-average reviews, but not quite breaking through as one of the more highly regarded films of that totally loaded year.
Looking back now, Man on the Moon is quite an entertaining rampage through Kaufman’s brief career — hitting all of the major highlights of the man’s life — and is buoyed by a hyper-method performance from Carrey that was so intense that it was the subject of an entire feature documentary in 2017 titled Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond. But what Man on the Moon didn’t do was provide much of any insight into who Andy Kaufman was, what made him tick, and what inspired him.
Even though Andy Kaufman (probably) didn’t really fake his own death, his influence was everywhere in the years between his death and the release of the film; it lives on in re-runs of Taxi and Saturday Night Live, while I’m From Hollywood — a raucously entertaining documentary about Kaufman’s foray into Memphis professional wrestling — ran in heavy rotation on Comedy Central throughout the ’90s, just in time for that decade’s pro wrestling boom period. Even the title “Man on the Moon,” before it was for a movie, was a musical tribute to Kaufman by R.E.M. that was featured on their best album, 1992’s Automatic For the People. R.E.M. would record a new song called “The Great Beyond” for the movie.
Written by biopic specialists Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, The People v. Larry Flynt, and this year’s Dolemite is My Name), Man on the Moon covers all of that ground — Kaufman’s early years, his often off-kilter comedy that blurred lines of what and what wasn’t a bit, his Tony Clifton character, his turns on Taxi and Saturday Night Live, his wrestling feud with Jerry “The King” Lawler, and ultimately his illness and death. We also see his romance with Lynne Margulies, played by Courtney Love during that brief period when she reinvented herself as a prestige actress.
Paul Giamatti played sidekick Bob Zmuda, Danny DeVito was agent George Shapiro, and the likes of David Letterman, Lawler, and much of the cast of Taxi played themselves, despite being noticeably older at the time of the production.
Strong and committed as Carrey’s performance is — and yes, the Jim and Andy documentary is highly recommended — he still never quite got to the heart of who Andy Kaufman was and where his strange, one-of-a-kind energy came from.
At the time of Man on the Moon, Carrey was a couple of years past his Ace Ventura/Dumb and Dumber/The Mask heyday, and had come out a year earlier with his acclaimed dramatic performance in The Truman Show. His superstardom continued into the next decade, including one of the best movies of the new century, 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
But his star later dimmed due to a series of flops, which included bad comedies (Fun With Dick and Jane), bad thrillers (the execrable The Number 23), and bad children’s movies (Mr. Popper’s Penguins.) Every once in a while, however, he’ll reappears in something great, like the underrated 2009 crime drama I Love You Philip Morris. Carrey is currently starring in the Showtime series Kidding, but his A-list days appear long behind him.
Milos Forman, the man who directed such classics as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Next and Amadeus, would sadly make only one more movie — 2006’s poorly received Goya’s Ghosts — prior to his death in 2018.
As for Andy Kaufman, every few years there is some type of credulous report hinting that he’s actually alive; in 2013, the entertainer’s brother claimed to have evidence Andy was alive, but it turned out to be hoax, just as it always does, which then leads to questions as to whether the hoax was the sort of prank that Andy may have appreciated.
Man on the Moon is still worth watching for Carrey’s performance, as well as for all the showbiz history it encompasses. But if you want to get to know the real Andy, you’re better off watching one of those two documentaries.