I admit it. I haven't always been a Jim Carrey fan. I first became familiar with Carrey in the movie "Ace Ventura, Pet Detective," which many hailed as a brilliant return to the classic style of Jerry Lewis. Personally, I thought the movie stunk big time. I cannot think of one scene that was even remotely funny. After watching "Ace Ventura," I mentally wrote off Carrey's career in showbiz.
But then a funny thing happened. He made a movie called "The Mask," which really was funny. With that, my respect for Carrey was reborn. Recently, he made what what was arguably his best movie ever at the time, "The Truman Show." It was a real tragedy that the Movie Academy didn't even notice this original, well-acted and well-written film. But the general public certainly did notice it, and the film became a success overnight.
Now, along comes "Man on the Moon," in which Carrey portrays the late (??) controversial comedian, Andy Kaufman. You may remember Kaufman from the TV series "Taxi," where he played Latka Gravas, a foreign mechanic with a heavy accent. Even though "Taxi" may have been the high point in Kaufman's career, Kaufman was apparently not fond of the series, nor, for that matter, of sitcoms in general, because he preferred doing things his way - not according to someone else's script. Just who was this rather strange person? This movie explores Kaufman's life without arriving at any definite answers (which, I think, is just how Kaufman would have liked it).
The movie begins with Latka coming onto a blank screen and telling us that he has edited out all the bad parts of the movie. As a result, all that remains is the opening sequence itself. With that, Latka walks over to a record player and plays music as the end credits begin to scroll down the screen. Finally, he slams the record player shut and the screen goes completely blank. After what seems like several minutes, Kaufman returns, telling us that he only did that to get rid of a bunch of people. With that, the real movie begins.
The opening sequence is vintage Kaufman. When we were watching him, we never knew just when the charade ended and the truth began. And keeping us guessing like that was exactly what Kaufman intended to do.
In the "real" beginning of the film, we meet Kaufman as a little boy. It seems the young Kaufman, even then, loved performing. Unfortunately, his favorite audience was the wallpaper. His father tells him that he is forbidden to do any more performances unless he has an audience consisting of real people. Not one to be discouraged easily, Kaufman solves this problem by making his little sister watch his performances. Kaufman turns out to be incredibly entertaining. That is, if you're under the age of ten. Later in life, a much older Kaufman tries the same performance in front of an audience of adults; they do not seem nearly as amused as Kaufman's sister.
As a result, Kaufman creates the character of Latka Gravas. When Kaufman/Gravas comes on the stage, the audience at first doesn't know what to make of this guy. He has a thick accent and would have trouble making a laughing hyena laugh. Then Latka does his Elvis impersonation. It's so perfect (right down to the costume and facial expressions) that soon the audience is begging for more. One audience member in particular, Hollywood talent manager George Shapiro (Danny DeVito), is quite interested in this rather bizarre foreign comedian.
So are the television networks. Shapiro - now very much aware that Gravas is merely one of Kaufman's characters - has to convince Kaufman to play Gravas in a new comedy series, "Taxi." Reluctantly, Kaufman agrees, but only on the condition that Vegas singer Tony Clifton be given a guest spot on the show. The deal goes through.
Just who is Tony Clifton? Shapiro is determined to find out. He goes to a little club where Clifton is doing a gig and witnesses the singer insult an audience member's Polish ethnicity. Shapiro is in shock. After the show, he goes backstage, only to discover that Clifton is none other than Andy Kaufman himself, and that the "Polish" audience member is Bob Zmuda (Paul Giamatti), Kaufman's best friend, who was in on the act the whole time.
Clifton's real identity remains a closely-guarded secret. Finally, it is time for Tony Clifton to make his appearance on "Taxi." He comes on the set with a couple of hookers, obnoxious as ever. Upstairs in the soundbooth, the execs make the "painful" decision to can Clifton (whose real identity is unknown to them). Shapiro has to call Kaufman with the bad news. He gets on the phone and calls Kaufman in "San Francisco." In actuality, of course, Shapiro is merely phoning downstairs, but the manager is enjoying himself too much to let the execs in on the secret.
Clifton is dragged out of the studio by security guards, kicking and screaming all the way. Zmuda, who just happens to have a camera, gets the whole thing on film. The next day, newspaper headlines show pictures of Clifton being kicked off the studio lot with the headline,"Who Is Tony Clifton?"
The controversy is great for Kaufman's career. And why shouldn't it be? One of my best friends has built his career on controversy. Like the old saying goes, "There's no such thing as negative press."
Rumors begin to spread that maybe Clifton is Kaufman (shocker of shockers!!). Kaufman, never one to be satisfied with such simplicity, decides to stir up the pot a little more. One night, Clifton is performing when who should appear on the stage but Andy Kaufman!! Clifton, Kaufman's self-declared nemesis, is enraged and throws Kaufman off the stage. The audience boos throughout the rest of Clifton's performance.
As it turns out, Zmuda played Clifton in this particular performance. Now the excitement of guessing whether Clifton is Kaufman is gone, and Kaufman's popularity begins to wane.
Time for another idea. Kaufman becomes a professional wrestler, touting the superiority of males over females. This, of course, does not go over very well with women. So, to prove his point, Kaufman invites women to wrestle him. The bigger Kaufman has little difficulty beating them. Even so, one of the women, Lynne Margulies (Courtney Love), ends up falling in love with Kaufman and becoming his lover.
One night, Kaufman is in the wrestling ring when professional wrestler Jerry Lawler (played by Lawler himself) challenges Kaufman to a real match. You don't have to be a genius to realize that Kaufman doesn't have a chance against the much bigger Lawler. Still, Kaufman makes sure to poke fun of Lawler's Southern accent, even as he is having the dickens beaten out of him.
Kaufman ends up in a neck brace, totally humiliated. He and Lawler then go to that place where everyone goes to reconcile: Late Night with David Letterman. It doesn't go as planned, however. Lawler refuses to accept Kaufman's apology. He even goes so far as to beat up Kaufman once more, in a spectacle that would seem right at home today on The Jerry Springer Show.
In case you haven't guessed, it was all an act - Lawler was in on it the whole time!!
Then tragedy strikes as Kaufman is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Kaufman, long a believer in Eastern philosophy, journies to the Philippines seeking a miracle cure. He stands in line as we watch the healer lie each person down on a bed and, apparently, stick his hands straight through the patient's stomach (as evidenced by all the blood that comes pouring forth). The healer then pulls the disease right out of the person's body. Finally it is Andy's turn. He lies down on the bed and the healer gets to work. It is at this point that Andy notices that the healer - like any good illusionist - has hidden a fruit in his hand. By crushing it in a certain way, he is able to make it appear that his hands have gone right into the patient's body. It is ironic that Kaufman is now on the receiving end of the kind of charade that he has pulled in the past on countless others.
With that, Kaufman dies. Cut to a year later. We see Tony Clifton doing one of his performances. Shapiro and Margulies are in the audience. Zmuda is conspicously absent. But, then, he should be, since he's up on stage behind the Clifton makeup. Or is he? The camera quickly gives us a glimpse of a guy who looks a lot like Zmuda in the audience. But if Zmuda is in the audience, who is that on the stage? Was this whole thing just another one of Kaufman's practical jokes?
"Man on the Moon" is a real triumph for Jim Carrey, who buries himself so convincingly in the role of Andy Kaufman that we quickly forget that we are watching an actor playing Kaufman and truly begin to believe that we are watching Kaufman himself in his own autobiographical film. But that's not possible, since Kaufman is long dead. Or is he??