The most beautiful element of Milos Forman’s Man on the Moon is that it encapsulates everything that performance artist Andy Kaufman was about and believed in. I say “performance artist” specifically because it is important to understand, above anything else, that Andy Kaufman was not a comedian. He didn’t claim to be and didn’t want to be a comedian. Sadly, that is all he was seen as by so many. Since his death in 1984, Kaufman’s cult following has increased with many speculating that his death may have been faked. Why would he fake his own death? Well, to Kaufman, creating an uncertainty for the audience was crucial. Many believe faking his death would have been his greatest joke – something Kaufman apparently stated himself. Kaufman created characters and remained in them longer than was seen as conventionally acceptable. For years he was supported by Tony Clifton, a rather abusive club singer. The two had a less than amicable relationship, with Clifton often bad mouthing Kaufman in interviews. The best part is that, as it turns out, Clifton was Kaufman in character. His unique outlook on entertainment and performance made Kaufman a controversial figure whose next move could never be predicted. He died a largely misunderstood artist with an unyielding passion to entertain. That is, of course, if he really died; and so the joke plays on. Forman’s Man on the Moon treats its audience just as Kaufman treated his. Whilst watching the film you are never truly sure whether you’re seeing the real Kaufman and his real story. Man on the Moon ultimately carries with it a great respect and admiration for Kaufman’s outlook, art and legacy.
Often, when a film is made by fans, it can be accused of being over-enthusiastic or amateur. Rob Zombie’s atrocious horror remakes stand as a concrete example as to why fans should stay far away from the director’s chair. Man on the Moon is a total exception to this rule. It is made by people who not only like Kaufman’s work but who truly understand his wit and his intention. Jim Carrey plays Kaufman’s own set of congas during the film. Why? Because he bought them at an auction several years before the film was made. Carrey is clearly a true fan of Kaufman. Thankfully, he becomes Kaufman; not just an impersonator. Within five minutes of Man on the Moon you forget that this is Carrey in character. Other striking performances come from Danny DeVito and Paul Giamatti. Courtney Love also gives a sturdy performance as Kaufman’s partner whom he stayed with until his death. Although, on the surface, Man on the Moon is a spirited comedy there are deeper layers to be explored underneath. The closing moments of the film will make any fan of Kaufman’s grin in delight as the spirit of Kaufman is reinstated by the film’s decision to embrace fan theories ever so lightly. Films like Man on the Moon come along ever so rarely. A true gem amidst piles of mediocre biopics. This film does many things but not once does it feel the need to justify Andy Kaufman’s behaviour or intent. Man on the Moon is a glorious celebration of a truly unique, misunderstood and deeply missed artist and individual. Like the man himself, Man on the Moon will make you laugh and, more importantly, keep you guessing.
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