In 1999 when Man on the Moon was released, Jim Carrey was pretty much one of the biggest comedic stars in the industry, though at the time I don’t think audiences were prepared to see Carrey make such a departure despite it being a career best performance. This was one of those box office failures that shouldn’t have been, but to be fair, 1999 is one of the most stacked years of great films, though how Carrey didn’t even get a nomination is baffling. So what are my thoughts after revisiting the Andy Kaufman bio-pic that was penned by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood and The People Vs. Larry Flynt) and directed by Milos Foreman (One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus)? The opening scene pretty much sets the tone for the film you are about to see with Andy Kaufman (Jim Carrey) breaking the 4th wall to address the film the audience is about to see. He goes on to tell them that the movie is over, and the credits roll and eventually the screen goes to black. When I saw this in theaters, I was surprised by how many people in the audience actually walked out, but to be fair, if you’re not slightly amused by this gag, I don’t imagine you’ll enjoy the rest of the film. Andy Kaufman wasn’t simply a comedian but more of a performance artist who seemed to get pleasure out of entertaining himself first, and if other people enjoyed the gag, well, that was an added bonus. For Kauf was great, but if they got upset or walked out, even better. When George Shapiro (Danny DeVito) catches one of Kaufman’s performances, he feels Andy is a unique talent and offers to be his manager.
The film lets us see the variety of characters that Kaufman developed, from his loveable foreign man that was made famous on Taxi when he was Latka to his obnoxious lounge singer alter-ego Tony Clifton. In some ways the character of Tony Clifton may be Kaufman’s greatest work that he created with his long time friend and comedy partner Bob Zmuda (Paul Giamatti). Seeing how Kaufman uses the character to pull one over on the studio and create drama on the set of Taxi is one of the more memorable yet cringe-worthy moments of the film. What’s even more impressive is how the filmmakers were able to get so many people from Taxi to return and shoot segments for the film. But it’s not just the Taxi sequences where we see people pulled from real life to play themselves in the film. So many people from Kaufman’s real life are in the film, his real life manager, Zmuda, his Dad, and his granddaughter all are sprinkled in this film that attempts to capture the essence of Andy Kaufman.
I haven’t even gotten to the portion of the film where Andy decides to be a heel and starts wrestling women and eventually leads to the infamous feud with Jerry Lawler. As Kaufman makes a transition with his character the film transitions along with him, and it will have you questioning what’s real and what’s all part of the act. Jim Carrey plays the role with such authenticity that it is easy to believe the stories about how extremely method he became with the performance off set. It’s this level of commitment that was needed to pull this performance off, and as the film transitions into the more tragic portion of Kaufman’s life, it’s Carrey’s charm that shines through that gets us to love and care about Andy all over again.
How Milos Forman decided to go about making this film with the camera cutting to the audience so often during Kaufman’s live performances is an inspired choice that reflects how important the audience was to Andy. In one of the behind-the-scenes featurettes, it discusses how important unique faces in the audience mattered to Forman; as a viewer you understand how right he was. He captures the face of the American audience, and how drastically differently one member of the crowd will react from another was what Andy was all about. Coming off of The People Vs Larry Flynt, Forman had dealt with another polarizing figure, and to a degree I see Man on the Moon as a nice companion film, but they are about two drastically different views of fame and fortune. Both Larry Flynt and Andy Kaufman can be viewed as trolls, one a crusader for freedom of speech while the other was the anti-crusader for wanting to not fit in with what the audience expected.
Man On The Moon is presented in the aspect ratio 2.35:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 35 mbps. This is a great looking transfer with vibrant colors and really captures the look of the 70’s and early 80’s. Even in the low-lit scenes in the comedy clubs, there is so much detail in the faces of the audience that are captured. Skin tones look great, as do the textures in the costumes.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track isn’t one that’ll have you embracing the surround sound. Aside from some use with scenes involving crowds or audiences, this really is just a talking-heads film, so no need to crank the bass. The dialog comes out crisp and clear, and that’s what matters most here.
Audio Commentary: Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski lend their input to the track and are moderated by Film Historian Howard S. Berger. This was recently recorded during the COVID-19 pandemic, so they were not in the same room, and because of this there are several times where they are all talking over one another, and with the conversation going in different directions it feels a bit chaotic. The bright side is there is a wealth of information on this track, and if you’re a fan of the film and Kaufman, there are plenty stories they share here.
THIS MIGHT BE A STORY…Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski In Conversation With Milos Forman: (21:32) This is an audio recording with the writers and directors discussing the story and how they’ll do the film. It’s insightful but would be better if it were on video.
Spotlight on Location: The Making of Man On The Moon: (19:02) This is a fun BTS look at the making of the film with interviews with the cast and the real life characters sharing their experience making the film, but more so about Andy Kaufman.
Deleted Scenes: (12:38) There is no option to select scenes. There are four scenes that were cut from the film, and one is an extended scene. These were mostly cut for time and don’t offer anything new, but I would have liked to have seen the scene after the wrestling match where Kaufman reveals to his parents his injury was a ruse.
REM Music videos: “Man on the Moon” & “The Great Beyond”
I feel Man on the Moon is one of the hidden gems of 1999 that is easily one of the most enjoyable bio-pics ever filmed. Seeing how Jim Carrey’s career has been a bit of a rollercoaster since this film came out, it stands out to me as his best work, but also is one of the best performances of the 90’s. The film is a rollercoaster as well, with moments that will make you cringe and laugh. If you have overlooked this title or simply maybe never heard of it, this is one worth picking up and watching.