Man on the Moon (1999)

Man on the Moon

As far as I know, this Andy Kaufman biopic is the only movie to be based on an R.E.M. song. But I would definitely be interested in a movie version of “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”

What I said then:

“‘Man on the Moon’ stumbles awkwardly in some minor areas, but still manages to convey in fascinating terms the oddness of Andy Kaufman’s life…. Jim Carrey … has never committed himself so deeply to a role…. It retells Andy’s public life but gives almost no insight whatsoever into his private life. Why make the movie if you’re not going to say anything?… It’s highly entertaining … but as a biography, it’s about as insightful as a guy lip-synching the ‘Mighty Mouse’ theme.” Grade: A-

Ugh, I’m a moron. Or rather, I was a moron in 1999. I’m really smart now. A rookie movie critic in those days, I tended to be rather promiscuous with my A’s and A-‘s. Basically, if I enjoyed a movie and didn’t notice anything particularly wrong with it, I gave it an A. If there were a couple of minor flaws in an otherwise entertaining film, it got an A-. Over time I adjusted my philosophy to where a movie like that — good, solid, enjoyable, well-made — is a B or B+. Higher grades are reserved for the films that go the extra mile, the ones that don’t just avoid doing anything wrong but provoke what Roger Ebert calls “an ineffable tingle at the base of my spine.”

But even by my lax standards of the time, my “Man on the Moon” review reads like a B, not an A-. Half the review is about the film’s shortcomings and weaknesses. If they were “minor,” as I said, why did I spend so many words talking about them? How did I write that review, re-read it, and then decide, “Yep, that’s an A-“? Like I said, I was a moron. You probably shouldn’t trust anything I said prior to the 21st century.

“Man in the Moon” came at a pivotal time in Jim Carrey’s career. After breaking out in the 1990s as an over-the-top comedy performer, he’d gotten rave reviews (and a Golden Globe) for his more nuanced and dramatic performance in “The Truman Show.” Now he was following it up with what seemed like a perfect opportunity to gain critical respect and perhaps even Oscar consideration. “Man on the Moon” was a biopic of a famous person; released in prime Oscar-bait season (late December); and directed by Academy Award winner Milos Forman, who’d made “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Amadeus,” and “The People vs. Larry Flynt.”

As it turned out, “Man on the Moon” only fared so-so with critics, with a few raves, a few pans, and a lot of “eh, it’s all right”s. (The Metacritic average is 58 out of 100; it’s 62% positive at Rotten Tomatoes.) It performed marginally at the box office. Carrey won another Golden Globe, and the film was nominated for best comedy or musical (it’s not really either), but who cares about Golden Globes? “Man on the Moon” didn’t get a single Oscar nomination, and now Carrey is acting opposite CGI penguins.

The re-viewing:

Carrey really is terrific as Andy Kaufman, at least in terms of impersonating his voice and mannerisms. In terms of helping us understand what made Kaufman tick, he’s a bust — but I think that’s attributable to the screenplay (by the guys who wrote “Problem Child”! OK, and also “The People vs. Larry Flynt”), which doesn’t give any insight. And maybe there was none to give. Kaufman’s longtime friend and collaborator Bob Zmuda (played by Paul Giamatti) was an executive producer on the film. If he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) help Carrey, Forman, and the screenwriters understand Kaufman, nobody could. Perhaps providing a biography of a man best known for being an enigma was a fool’s errand to begin with.

The re-enactments of Kaufman’s famous public incidents are fun to watch, with fairly accurate re-creations of the “Saturday Night Live,” “Taxi,” and “Late Night with David Letterman” sets, and excellent mimicking of Kaufman’s behavior. Kaufman’s first appearance on “SNL” (on the show’s first episode) is on Netflix Instant, and clips of the Jerry Lawler/David Letterman fight are on YouTube. That wasn’t the case in 1999; moviegoers couldn’t easily compare “Man on the Moon’s” versions with the originals. I think the slight differences are fascinating. For example, in the movie’s depiction of the “SNL” appearance, Kaufman stands there silently before playing the “Mighty Mouse” record for much, much longer than he actually did — obviously, this creates tension over whether Kaufman will bomb on national television.

Norm Macdonald appears as a cast member of “Fridays,” ABC’s short-lived “SNL” ripoff on which Kaufman was a guest. I didn’t realize until now that Macdonald wasn’t just playing some forgotten “Fridays” performer — he was playing Michael Richards! Interesting tidbit: Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who wrote “Man on the Moon,” next wrote and directed Norm Macdonald’s “Screwed.” Also, in that “Fridays” scene, the producer Kaufman gets into a fight with is played by the real Bob Zmuda. Trivia!

Do I still love this movie?

It would be more accurate to say I never loved it in the first place. The second viewing, 11 1/2 years later, held plenty of entertainment value for me, and I’m more intrigued by Kaufman’s avant-garde style of anti-comedy now than I was then. For that reason, I wish even more ardently that we could get a feel for what went on in Kaufman’s batty head. As an “inside Hollywood” backstage story, though, “Man on the Moon” is above average. Grade: B