Man on the Moon (1999) / Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (2017)

Directed by Milos Forman, Chris Smith

Screen Shot 2018-07-31 at 1.28.51 PM

Man on the Moon is a well-made, if familiar biopic about a fascinating comedian, Andy Kaufman.  Jim & Andy is an engaging documentary about Jim Carrey during the production of Man on the Moon, and if watched together it helps you see the profundity behind the 1999 biopic.

The film is good, the older one, but it’s the documentary which highlights what was really going on.  Jim Carrey’s work in the film parallels some of his own life, and his disappearance into the Andy Kaufman/Tony Clifton persona says so much more than the narrative film provides.

That film is burdened with the restrictions of a Hollywood movie.  It’s a biopic, so we see Andy as a child, and then we fast forward through his career until his untimely death.  Each scene, no matter how entertaining, feels like a series of stepping stones to get to the next, and in that quickness a lot of the nuance of Kaufman’s character is surely lost.

Who knows what drove him and his intense commitment to performance art, but Jim & Andy lets Jim Carrey explain his own commitment to the role, and in the overlap between their two careers we get a sense of what Andy Kaufman had set out to demonstrate.

Man on the Moon uses a lot of the people who were there during Kaufman’s own career.  Certain actors from the tv show Taxi play themselves while Danny Devito, himself a part of the Taxi cast, plays Kaufman’s agent in Man on the Moon.  Wrestler Jerry Lawler plays himself, as does David Letterman, Judd Hirsch and others.  Bob Zmuda, played by Paul Giamatti, shows up somewhere in there as well.

I’m having a hard time keeping this all straight because I can’t think of Man on the Moon without thinking of the documentary, filmed by Andy Kaufman’s own girlfriend, Lynne Marguiles, played by Courteney Love in Man on the Moon.

There’s a lot of overlap, and the decision to cast so many people from Kaufman’s real life helps blur these lines.  That gray area is the point of Jim & Andy, a documentary which takes the time to explore personality, image and their limits.  We may know someone, but do we really?

Andy Kaufman passed away in 1984, and yet some people think he’s still alive.  That should say enough about his lasting impact.  He was a comedian devoted to the performance art and blurring the lines between what’s authentic and what’s fabricated.  He did it to such a degree that it became increasingly difficult to judge which was which, and that’s the point.  At least, that’s the point Jim Carrey makes.

His own dive into Kaufman’s persona reflects the commitment he admired from the man he was pretending to be.  And since Jim Carrey adopted a persona that Andy Kaufman had adopted, maybe he wasn’t playing the comedian but rather channeling the same spirit.  Again, that’s kind of what Carrey argues.  If you believe him, then he didn’t so much play a character as much as inhabit it, borrowing the mannerisms, personality and supposed spirit that for a short time dictated his identity.

In the documentary Carrey takes us through his own life, where his passion for comedy came from and the challenges that followed him on his journey.  Whereas what we know of Kaufman tells us he was taking part in a singular performance throughout his entire career, we can more clearly see the stages to Carrey’s trajectory.

He was the biggest comedy star in the world following the succession of Ace VenturaThe Mask and Dumb & Dumber.  His roles were based on a similar persona, the one that brought him success and which everyone around demanded he continue to play.  He was typecast not just in movies but in his life.  It’s the same thing which happened to Kaufman, playing his well-known “foreign man” character on Taxi.

Both movies then explore the malleability of identity.  Everyone, for a time, thought Jim Carrey was one thing, and he wanted to demonstrate how such an image was completely fabricated, renovated and untruthful.  It’s just a character, but we believe it because it’s all we have to go off of.

But we do the same things in our own lives.  Our identities are chosen, whether based on some subconscious impulse or deliberately due to a point we want to make.  We talk differently to different people, we shake hands, hug or do a simple head nod to others.  We may laugh one way in private and another in public.  You know this.

But do we?  I think that’s the point.  Can we see how constructed these images of ourselves are?  Maybe on one level, sure, but on another we take so many things for granted.  We see someone on tv most nights, and we think we know them, like we know Jim Carrey.

We gleam so much from the media, and sometimes it’s hard to realize it.  I sure do.  We dictate our own values from such stimuli around us, judging our lives and perceived paths based on fictional characters or PR-bloated, manufactured images of celebrity.

And with social media we perpetuate these images, but we can’t help it.  It’s not an indictment, just the natural way of things.  You post a photo of your backyard, a birthday cake, a friend and people are free to take that image anyway they choose.  It’s impossible to know how or for how long people will consider these images.  We just put them out there and oftentimes move on, breathing out virtual carbon dioxide and in virtual oxygen.

Alright, I can feel my head up my own ass again, but these are the things I think about when thinking about these movies.  Both Man on the Moon and Jim & Andy are about false constructions and breaking those down.  Even in the documentary Jim Carrey is performing.  He sometimes sounds authentic, other times rehearsed.  It’s foolish to take anything he says too seriously because how do we know this wasn’t just a planned extension of his performance piece twenty years ago?  The documentary exists not just because he decided to talk about it but because there was a deliberate choice to enlist a camera crew at the time.

So we still don’t know who Jim Carrey is, or most people for that matter.  We can make up our own ideas of what he might be like in private, but that says as much about us as it does him.  We project ourselves onto the world around us, don’t we?

Jim & Andy follows in theme the mockumentary I’m Still Here in which Joaquin Phoenix participated in a similar piece of performance art, and no one was sure if it was for real or not.

Up Next: Altered States (1980), True Grit (1969), Out of the Past (1947)

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