Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Man on the Moon

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

Man on the Moon

7/10

USA 1999, dir. Milos Forman, stars Jim Carrey, Courtney Love

Just many people – actually, change that to most – didn’t get Andy Kaufman, so I suspect many people – OK then, most people – just won’t get Man On The Moon either. Fair enough, Kaufman knew he was never going to be a universally popular, globally famous comic star like, say, Jim Carrey. And I must admit I didn’t quite get The People vs Larry Flynt, this director’s previous film, which, like Man on the Moon, was a 70s-set unorthodox biopic of a controversial figure who ended up marrying a character played by Courtney Love before being cut down in his prime. Incidentally, shouldn’t this practice of a director ploughing the same furrow twice now go into dictionaries as ‘doing a Darabont?’

Part of the reason Man on the Moon will divide audiences is the fact that, as with The Truman Show, this is not a Jim Carrey crazy comedy – hence the walkouts in US multiplexes by disgruntled 11-year-olds. Like Kaufman’s act, and Truman, it may not even be a comedy at all. Kaufman isn’t a big name in the US these days and is even more obscure in Britain. But even among Kaufman fans, there’s a Jim Carrey pretending to be a comedianlot to object to in Man on the Moon. It’s silly, people will say, to have everybody from Taxi playing themselves, but without any make-up or anything apart from Jeff Conaway’s ludicrous Kenickie wig – Judd Hirsch looks about 70, they will complain. And why does Danny De Vito play Kaufman’s agent, thus preventing him from recreating his cab-fuhrer Louie? And why, when Kaufman gets cancer and loses his hair, don’t they even try to make Carrey look any thinner… And on, and on.

Well, I think Forman knew exactly what he was doing when he did all those things. They were his choices, and he made them because they were right for the material, regardless of what the audience wants, or thinks it wants. Forman has taken these kinds of risks before, as when he allowed Jeffrey Jones to play the Emperor as an American in Amadeus. On paper, disastrous – on celluloid, magical. Like Kaufman, Forman throws the viewers’ expectations back in their faces – there’s hardly any ‘proper’ biographical material, such as Kaufman’s childhood, or how he met his various collaborators, or how he came up with his various routines – and, as we see in the movie, sometimes the last thing an audience wants is to have their expectations frustrated, or even questioned. Kaufman was, this film proves, that rarity in America, a genuinely subversive talent who made a difference on the national stage, and as such entirely deserving of such cinematic treatment.

There are several cracking scenes – Carrey’s uncanny recreation of Kaufman’s Latka-Elvis routine, his Las Vegas wrestling interlude with Jerry Lawler, his outrageous restaurant antics as Kaufman’s boorish Tony Clifton alter-ego – but Man on the Moon isn’t a great film as such. Forman’s visuals are, too often, pancake-flat, and he occasionally is guilty of going for cheap sentimental effects. But this a great story about a kind-of-great individual, the like of which American culture could well do with today. It’s clearly not suitable for everybody, thank God.

by Neil Young