Doing a biographical movie of a man based on an entire persona that was in the public eye and available on video is a fool’s errand but it’s not one that is unique to Milos Forman’s Man on the Moon. Man on the Moon’s unique triumph is to produce a movie so execrable that it almost makes you glad Andy Kaufman is dead. Which makes Man on the Moon the sort of biopic Andy Kaufman might have appreciated in its effect on the audience rather than in its execution which by turns combines sappy self-righteous arm-waving melodrama with utterly pointless restagings of events most people have already seen.
The opening of Man on the Moon attempts to play with the audience in the Andy Kaufman style but it’s a weak attempt and the closest Milos Forman comes to trying to imitate Andy Kaufman’s methods. Instead Forman settles for a tear jerking tribute that follows Jim Carrey along through a fragmented narrative of major moments in Andy’s life and career and a finale that attempts to leave open the question of whether Andy Kaufman is alive or dead, yet fails because Milos Forman has spent too much of the movie showing us Kaufman’s tricks behind the scenes.
Where Andy Kaufman valued the unexpected, Milos Forman produces a movie that is entirely predictable and turns Andy Kaufman’s life into a closed book through melodrama and sentimentality without ever having a clue as to what moved him or motivated him. Jim Carrey does an excellent imitation of Andy Kaufman aided by some talented makeup artists but in the end the energy of Carrey’s performance is his own and clashes with Kaufman’s slower paced routines. But even Carrey at his best is merely doing an imitation of Andy Kaufman rather than giving us anything new. We don’t learn more about Andy Kaufman and we know the outcome to even his most maddening routines. Man on the Moon is nostalgia for people who don’t need it because they remember the real thing and that leaves Man on the Moon is devoid of everything that made Andy Kaufman so exciting to watch.
In some parallel universe, Charlie Kaufman would have written the screenplay for Man on the Moon, Robert Downey Jr would have starred in it and Michael Gondry would have directed it. That movie might have captured what Andy Kaufman did, if not what made him tick. Man on the Moon though is simply a hagiography of a man who resisted hagiographies, reason, schedules, formats and simple answers. It isn’t the movie he deserved but the movie that the same sort of people who refused to understand him throughout his career churned out as the lowest common denominator response to a dead celebrity. Man on the Moon is a miserable moviegoing experience, suffering from a fragmented narrative and could have been replaced by a collection of Andy Kaufman clips for about a 100th of the price. Rather than a tribute to Andy Kaufman, Man on the Moon is a tribute to our culture’s need to venerate and create a false sense of acquaintance with celebrities, even with one as determined to resist the simple cliches of culture consumerism as Kaufman was.