In 1999, Jim Carrey starred in Man on the Moon, a biopic about Andy Kaufman, a comedian slash performance artist slash metaphysical meditation on humanity. Carrey stayed in character throughout the making of the movie, which would’ve been intriguing enough. But the late Kaufman himself was a bit of a shapeshifter, often appearing underneath pounds of makeup in the persona of lounge singer “Tony Clifton.” So Carrey would play Kaufman playing Clifton. This caused minor behind-the-scenes turmoil that was, itself, possibly more fiction than fact. Man on the Moon, a financial flop at a time when Carrey was a huge box office star, was received mostly with shrugs by anyone who saw it. But our then-critic, Owen Gleiberman, named it the best movie of 1999, calling it “a great, exhilarating fable for the era of virtual identity.” Rumors circulated at the time of behind-the-scenes video, shot by Kaufman’s girlfriend, that included hours of Carrey on set.
We’re further now from Man on the Moon than Man on the Moon was from Kaufman’s death. I don’t want to say the film’s been forgotten; it seems more accurate to say it has no reputation. But now that behind-the-scenes video has finally resurfaced, it’s proving to be a fascinating artifact from a Hollywood age that is only just becoming ancient history. The Netflix documentary is called (full title) Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond — Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton. It’s not quite good, and in some ways the film’s point is rather loathsome, but it’s also an enthralling look at the artistic process – and, maybe accidentally, a bleak vision of the power and privilege of celebrity.
Jim & Andy oscillates between three main narrative threads. We see actual footage of Kaufman himself, performing routines that could seem like stunts, or anti-comedy, and which now seem to anticipate multiple generations of absurdist comedy. But Kaufman was also a creature of his show business era. He needed some kind of system to rebel against: The friendly aura of network situation comedy, the sketches of Saturday Night Live, the notional grandeur of Carnegie Hall, the whole transactional notion that a stand-up comedy show should contain jokes for an audience and not readings of The Great Gatsby. Man on the Moon was its own sort of rebellion: Adopting the treacly format of a showbiz biopic, writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski composed a twisty tale of persona-shifting which took wild liberties with Kaufman’s own life. (It was the same instinct that made their work on The People v. OJ Simpson so powerful, that curious blend of sharp historical inquisition and showbiz pastiche.)
The third thread of Jim & Andy is, well, Jim: Carrey today, bearded and calm, vaguely spiritual in the manner of many SoCal gentlemen of leisure, speaking to the camera as its narrator and sole talking head. Carrey recalls taking on Man on the Moon, and beginning the process of getting into Kaufman’s head. “What happened afterwards,” he says, “was out of my control.”
The sequences set behind the scenes are fascinating. It’s a feast for anyone who loves to watch movies get made. And watching Carrey “play” is… strange. He’s “in character,” but by focusing on the most avant-garde notions of Kaufman’s personality, he’s also a constant source of disruption. Director Milos Forman reacts – with good humor, and then palpable confusion – at his superstar actor’s command to be addressed as “Andy” or as “Tony.” Dressed as Tony Clifton, Carrey would run wild around the Universal lot, walking into Amblin and yelling that he wants to see Steven Spielberg.
“Most people felt that the movie was happening behind the camera,” Carrey says. At one moment, we see Carrey in the makeup chair, “in character” as Andy, getting into a loud argument with actor Gerry Becker, who played Kaufman’s father. It’s not quite crazy if they’re rehearsing, or if Becker’s complaining, or if it started as one thing and then became another; Carrey, circa now, says that Becker “went crazy, suddenly, in the makeup trailer.” Becker storms out, and we see that one of the makeup artists is crying. “That reminds me of my dad,” she says, laughing through real tears. “I can’t believe that.”
In that same sequence, we see Paul Giamatti in the makeup chair next to Carrey. Giamatti played Kaufman lieutenant Bob Zmuda in Man on the Moon. In Jim & Andy, he appears constantly in the background, wearing the impassive face of a professional just trying to get through the day.
Jim & Andy doesn’t have the clarity to investigate that, though. It prints a few legends: Andy Kaufman, the Great Rebel, and Jim Carrey, the Superstar Gone Method who conjured Andy’s spirit as a kind of resurrection. Along the way, it tries to become a mini-biography for Carrey himself (witness the origin story of “Alrighty then!”) with a once-over-lightly take on his greatest hits and no mention of his misses. The celebrity worship runs deep in Jim & Andy, and so the film misses one of its own most fascinating points. We see the on-set arrival of Jerry Lawler, a wrestler who staged several disturbing-hilarious events with Kaufman himself. Carrey treats Lawler horribly, calling him names, trying to get a rise out of him. This is, nominally, all part of the “in-character” experiment: Kaufman played the role of irritant in public battles with Lawler.
There’s a layer missing to the performance though. “In real life, Andy and I were friends,” Lawler tells the camera. “We planned things together.” Carrey’s on-set torment of the wrestler climaxes with some actual scuffles, one of which ends with Carrey going to the hospital. Jim & Andy treats this as some climactic thesis moment — somehow Carrey-as-Andy clashing with Lawler is more real than the actual Kaufman-Lawler feud. But you wonder if Jim & Andy – and Carrey – missed some essential point about Kaufman. That, far from being some kind of reactive method comedian, turning the whole world into his improv session, he was a meticulous and careful performer, constructing his rebellions in the quiet manner of someone who had to be let into the club just long enough to start tearing down its walls.
Because the blunt truth is that Carrey could get away with whatever he wanted to on the set. He was the comedy superstar of the ’90s; there was no interaction where anyone had a higher status than him. Jim & Andy wants to pitch itself as a portrait of the artist as a Jackass-era rebel, as if to say, “Can you believe he’s getting away with this?” But, like, of course he is. When you’re a star, you can get away with anything. They let you do it. You can do anything.
So Jim & Andy is also a portrait of a special kind of superstar privilege, pushed to an extreme. And it catches something embryonic, too. After going to the hospital, Carrey watches in a state of awe as the TV news runs with the story of his on-set incident. “It’s, like, on the real news,” he says. It’s like witnessing the birth of the viral era, which is a roundabout way of saying that what Carrey does on the Man on the Moon set seems precisely as annoying as everything a YouTuber does all day.
Which is part of Man on the Moon‘s power, I think, and it’s important to stress that there was an artistic purpose to all this madness. Jim & Andy falls into movie star worship, though, and it doesn’t help that Bearded Carrey’s musings trend abstract, woozy. “Every movie I’ve gotten in my life,” he says, “Trace any movie, and I could tell you, somehow, how that was the absolute manifestation of my consciousness at that time.” First, Mr. Popper’s Penguins, go. Second: Surely there were some other people involved in the manifesting of those movies? Carrey does have some thoughtful statements about what it felt like to become so famous, becoming “the crowd’s man.” In a cosmic frame of mind, he states:
At some point, when you create yourself to make it, you’re going to have to either let that creation go, and take a chance on being loved or hated for who you really are. Or you’re gonna have to kill who you really are, and fall into your grave grasping onto a character that you never were.
But Jim & Andy can’t quite follow through on the darkness of that statement. Much of the movie finds Carrey – in the past and in the present – praising Kaufman for his boldness, saying things like “I don’t think he liked structures.” But the documentary builds to an extremely structured, touchy-feely final act, and cuts some noticeable corners to get there. It doesn’t mention the meh reaction the film earned from audiences. We see Carrey accepting a Golden Globe for Man on the Moon – but the film cuts before Carrey’s tricky acceptance speech, when he says “I was a very silly person on this movie” and admits he was shocked that a biopic with final-act cancer diagnosis was considered a comedy/musical. (The Globes were goofy years before Get Out!)
Along the way, it loses sight of Kaufman himself: The man becomes a hazy figure, replaced by Carrey’s interpretation of him. Jim & Andy is fascinating, but it lands on a weird message: Thank goodness Andy Kaufman existed so Jim Carrey could play him in a movie. B