Although there are a few instances to the contrary, for the most part nearly everyone loves comedians. Whether they're of the movie or TV variety, the kind who do standup bits or even a favorite uncle who always had a knack for making people laugh, such performers - professional or amateur -- are usually high admired and their acts frequently requested.
A partial exception to that rule, however, was the late Any Kaufman. Best known for playing the immigrant simpleton, Latka Gravas, on the old, but still quite funny late '70s and early '80's sitcom, "Taxi," Kaufman had another side - actually many more sides - than what appeared on the tube once a week.
A performer who seemed to thrive on controversy stemming from his unconventional routines and attempts at humor and other forms of "entertainment," Kaufman was perhaps the best cinematic definition of Winston Churchill's old saying about a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. While on the surface he often grazed many people the wrong way, there was obviously much more to him as a comedian and as a person.
Despite his recent cult like status among teens and those in college, Kaufman never became a huge star beyond "Taxi." Of course, considering his unconventionality, that could have been his desire all along, but unlike other comedians of his day his comedy never translated into big screen success. In addition, his unique - to put it mildly - TV special barely made it on the air and hasn't been seen since 1980 (although there are recent reports that it will on the cable channel, TV Land, to coincide with the release of this film).
Part of that's because a little of Kaufman went a long way, and he often went too far, continuing to push his routines long after they had run their course and stopped being funny. While there have been plenty of stories about the misunderstood/tortured artist, if there was ever a poster boy for that syndrome, Kaufman was the ideal candidate.
Yet, with the comedian's death in 1984 from a rare type of lung cancer, his potential was cut short and the untimely demise prevented most everyone from ever really figuring out what the comic and the man were really about, or what drove him to push the audience and his material so far. Even so, his legacy will live on.
That's especially true now upon the release of "Man on the Moon," an episodic and partially satisfying look at the comedian and his many antics. Named after a song by R.E.M. and as directed by Milos Forman ("One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Amadeus"), who last brought the life and times of porn king Larry Flynt to the screen in 1996's "The People vs. Larry Flynt," the film nearly comes off as not much more than a lovingly recreated highlight reel of Kaufman's more famous and infamous routines and appearances.
Yet, without it ever really digging quite deep enough into the man to either fully explain his actions or get the audience to truly care about him, the film often feels as if it's missing some soul, let alone the more tightly structured plot structure that fueled "Flynt" so well.
With only one childhood scene - a fun moment where Kaufman's father insist that his young son perform in front of a live "audience" instead of the blank wall -- to provide some insight into what turned Kaufman into the person he became, there's nearly nothing else to help the audience either sympathize with the character or get wrapped up in the proceedings. As such, there's very little to help explain the character's motivations and actions beyond seemingly wanting to rile up the audience.
Instead, Milos and writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (who collaborated on the biographical films "The People vs. Larry Flynt" and "Ed Wood") simply begin to reel off bit after bit of Kaufman's "onstage" life as if taking on the responsibility of becoming a documentary about the comedian. That is, of course, without the voice over narrator or interviews with people who knew him and perhaps could explain what molded and ultimately drove him in the direction he chose.
From the performance on TV's "Saturday Night Live" where Kaufman stood relatively motionless until he vivaciously lip-synched part of the Mighty Mouse theme song (which I vividly recall as an odd, but quirkily funny moment) to his bits as the abrasive lounge singer Tony Clifton and then his stint with wrestling women and professional wrestler Jerry Lawler (who appears in the film as himself), Kaufman's highs (and lows) are impressively recreated.
Of course the film also had to touch on the "Taxi" material, and Forman revisits the set and most of the original, albeit much older cast nearly two decades after the show last aired in primetime. Oddly missing from the company of Judd Hirsch, Marilu Henner and Christopher Lloyd, however, is Danny DeVito. Since he appears in the film as another character, however, his reappearance as the crabby and cantankerous Louie De Palma might have been a bit confusing.
Since Kaufman is dead, the filmmakers couldn't resurrect him to play Latka in those scenes, so they had to settle for Jim Carrey ("The Truman Show," "Liar, Liar") in the role. For those who may now be groaning or had a similar reaction upon first hearing that the man who once talked out of his butt and uttered phrases like "Smooookeeeeeen" would tackle this character, let me state that Carrey is absolutely fabulous in the role.
A certifiable triumph of physical and behavioral imitation across many characters and the man himself, Carrey's performance is so good and dead-on that anyone remotely familiar with the late comic may often forget it's not Kaufman himself. It's only in a few scenes where Carrey's "old self" rematerializes that the illusion is momentarily derailed. That's not a horrible problem, but the fact that rarely has a reality-based film contained a performance so close to the original that when the performer's real identity seeps through the viewer can't help but be a bit disappointed.
Carrey also manages to bring a certain vulnerability to the role, but that's offset by the problem, as stated before, of us never really getting to know the character and what makes him tick. Perhaps no one ever really knew the real Kaufman and thus such an effort would be pointless and/or an educated guess at best. Then again, perhaps Forman decided that portraying the character that way would be truest to the sense and legend of the comedian.
Other performances are decent, but only serve as backdrops behind Carrey's tour de force. As his frustrated manager/agent, Danny DeVito ("Living Out Loud," "L.A. Confidential") is good, while singer turned actress Courtney Love ("The People Vs. Larry Flynt," "200 Cigarettes") can't do much with a character that's far less fleshed out than the somewhat similar role she had in "Flynt."
Meanwhile, Paul Giamatti ("Private Parts," "Safe Men") and Vincent Schiavelli ("Tomorrow Never Dies," "Ghost") are funny in their smaller parts, while a bevy of real life personalities - from the "Taxi" cast to David Letterman and Norm Macdonald provide for some fun celebrity spotting.
Where the film may most disappoint viewers - beyond the overall, episodic highlight reel structure that runs throughout it - is in the fact that like many other "serious" films about comedians (such as "Punchline"), this one is rarely outrageously hilarious, and actually only offers a few truly funny moments. Of course Kaufman's brand of humor - aside from the Latka sitcom character -- was never about big belly laughs, but instead was designed to shock the audience or at least show them something they hadn't seen before.
Although a clever opening starts the film off with a great bit - of Carrey (as Kaufman) addressing the audience and stating that he edited down the movie to the point that it's now over and the end credits then roll - the rest of film doesn't live up to that "prank" that Kaufman himself would have approved of.
Whether Foreman was attempting to do the same in his somewhat unconventional approach at telling the story is unclear, but as a whole it ends up not being terribly compelling. Nor does it excel as well at portraying a real-life character as occurred with "The People vs. Larry Flynt" where you may not have liked the character played by Woody Harrelson, but at least you knew something about him. Here the portrayal is often too frustrating in its lack of details and motivational cues.
Even so, if you have a passing interest and/or any fond memories of Kaufman, you may want to see the film simply for a trip down memory lane and a tremendous performance from Carrey that may earn him some award nominations, if only for his uncanny imitation of the late comedian. We give "Man on the Moon" a 6 out of 10.