“What happened afterwards, was out of my control”
There’s a scene in Man on the Moon, Milos Forman’s 1999 Andy Kaufman biopic, in which Kaufman not only tells his closest loved ones that he’s dying of cancer but also must convince them it’s not a bit. Even after the comedian did die, fans expected it to be an elaborate hoax. When you spend a career fully committing to extreme jokes, how can anyone believe anything you say?
This is a useful question to keep in mind regarding Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond - The Story of Jim Carrey & Andy Kaufman Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton (J&A:TGB-TSOJC&AKFAVS,COMOTC for short). Is what it shows us for real, or are we just witnessing a new expression of a nearly twenty-year-old bit?
So it’s best to start out with things that are factually true. In 1999 Milos Forman directed a biopic of Andy Kaufman called Man on the Moon. It starred Jim Carrey, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars at the time and a comedian whose love of Kaufman was so strong that he refused to break character (whether portraying Kaufman or his rude, hideous alter ego, Tony Clifton) throughout shooting. During the process, a documentary crew (including Kaufman’s girlfriend Lynn Marguiles) followed Carrey - I’m sorry, Kaufman/Clifton - and took footage of him driving everyone crazy with his shenanigans. The film was kept hidden until the release of this documentary.
There’s no doubting the footage is genuine or that Carrey really did this. The tricky part comes from his present-day talking head segments, in which Carrey innocently answers questions about the shoot, as if he just wants to satiate the curiosity of some random documentarian. Carrey’s is the only point of view we get, which - along with his weirdly arrogant existential musings and the nagging feeling that he’s in an empty room answering questions no one actually asked - throws much of the film’s presentation into question. Carrey seems sincere but quietly extreme, and one wonders if he’s not just playing another character, as he both absolves himself of all responsibility for the chaos he caused on set and also credits the shoot for teaching him the secrets of the universe (I’m exaggerating a bit here).
You want it to be a gag, simply because Carrey comes off as totally obnoxious in both his talking head segments and the 1999 footage. One of Jim & Andy’s great joys is seeing actors like Judd Hirsch, Paul Giamatti and Danny DeVito praise Carrey’s commitment when talking to his camera crew yet roll their eyes while in the background of other shots. We see Carrey meet Kaufman’s real father in character and hear a story where he meets Kaufman’s daughter - something Kaufman never got to do - and privately talk to her as Andy for an hour, and it’s hard not to feel an irritated shudder run down your spine.
Which is part of what makes the whole thing so fascinating. Jim & Andy achieves that rarified territory of films like Heart of Darkness and Burden of Dreams - movie documentaries that provide invaluable companions to their abnormal, troubled subjects. This is particularly true with Jim & Andy because while Apocalypse Now and Fitzcarraldo are classics in their own right, the somewhat pedestrian Man on the Moon could use the help.
And that might be the best gag of all. Everything Carrey put into the film, all the weight he puts on the experience now, it was all in service of a rather bland film that hasn’t quite survived the test of time. Interestingly, while Carrey makes his case, the film undermines him with a sly undercurrent of footage from The Truman Show at strategic times, as if to argue on a higher level against what Carrey’s trying to assert about fame, ego and performance. If nothing else, Jim & Andy offers an impressive number of thematic layers to ponder while trying to remember the last time you watched Man on the Moon. Even if the film frustrates you, it is very much worth your time when it hits Netflix November 17.