Man on the Moon looks at high and low points of Andy Kaufman’s life

They say wrestling killed Andy Kaufman’s career. It almost killed his movie too.

Man on the Moon (Universal Pictures), the new movie on Kaufman’s life, is incredibly funny – like Kaufman’s career. It also has its low points. Overall, it is a surprisingly accurate and laugh-out-loud riot of a movie, and one to see this holiday season.

Jim Carrey (The Truman Show) gives an uncanny portrayal of Andy Kaufman and his numerous characters, from the foreign man to Elvis to Latka, his most famous persona from the TV show Taxi. But what makes Carrey’s performance in the many different faces of Kaufman so good is that he, like the original, goes from one character to another seamlessly. It is easy to forget you are watching a movie about Kaufman – not the real Kaufman.

Carrey reportedly would choose the character of the day and act that way – on and off stage. Cast and crew members said at times it was hard to remember they were not working with the real Kaufman. And Carrey’s devotion to his part, actually his numerous parts, comes through to the audience.

The movie’s opening monologue is nothing short of classic. And the look at Kaufman’s childhood in Great Neck, N.Y., clues the audience into his dementia early on. From there, the movie follows Kaufman and his manager George Shapiro, played by Danny DeVito (Living Out Loud).

You’re insane, but you may also be brilliant, Shapiro says in the film after catching Kaufman’s comedy club act. Kaufman would go into the club, posing as a foreign man who did not speak English. He would persuade the owner to put him on stage and would then dazzle the crowd with his impressions, including a drop-dead realistic Elvis Presley.

Kaufman’s career goes from the nightclubs to Saturday Night Live, where he surprises the crowd on the show’s premier with an impression of Mighty Mouse. And then it was onto Taxi, in which Kaufman unwittingly breaks into sitcoms, despite his hatred of the genre.

It is hard to tell Kaufman’s story without delving into his dark side, and that is Tony Clifton. Clifton, an obnoxious lounge singer, is Kaufman’s alterego. Until the end, Kaufman refused to admit he was Clifton. Sometimes, his sidekick Bob Zmuda (Paul Giamatti) takes on the Clifton persona to confuse the audience. Kaufman originally said he wouldn’t do Taxi unless Clifton could be on four shows, but Clifton gets thrown off the set on his first day at work.

And then there is the wrestling. After his Taxi career takes a dive, he finds the need to wrestle professionally – although mostly against women. The bizarre pastime, which Zmuda later admits is mostly for Kaufman’s sexual gratification, drags on for too long in the movie, but it also dragged on for too long in his life. Courtney Love (People vs. Larry Flynt) gives a mediocre performance as Kaufman’s sparring partner and lover.

That is the beginning of the end. Kaufman’s career went so low that in a viewer vote-in poll on Saturday Night Live the audience voted him off the show by a margin of 28 percent.

But even with the slow parts, Man on the Moon has the potential to be a real crowd pleaser during the holidays. Carrey is a huge box-office draw and deserves Oscar consideration for his work. He will bring in a younger crowd, while parents will want to remember the Kaufman they watched on Taxi. Some of the old Taxi regulars make cameos, as does David Letterman, which makes the movie more realistic.

The music, including the title song from R.E.M., is a real highlight. It helps bridge the generation gap.

In the end, Kaufman was a lovable man with many eccentric personalities. One minute he could take the whole audience from Carnegie Hall out for milk and cookies, the next he could be a boorish lounge singer insulting everyone at a club. You never knew which Andy you were going to get, and that was part of the fun. The movie captures his many sides beautifully.

Kaufman passed away too early – it is hard to imagine what he would have been like today. But Man on the Moon will remind viewers why they loved him and also will bring many more people into his crazy world.

Man on the Moon opens in theaters Dec. 22.

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