Throughout Man on the Moon, Kaufman doesn’t come across as a visionary. He comes across as someone unable to see what a mess he’s making.
When Kanye West first really started to piss people off in late 2015 and early 2016, proclaiming Bill Cosby’s influence with the same carelessness with which he supported his dragon brother Trump, a lot of people joked it was a performance art campaign. How could a man who put his career at risk to speak harsh truths, suddenly turn reactionary? The name Andy Kaufman was spoken a lot at the time: the performance artist who was so unpredictable, who blurred the lines so deftly between reality and performance no one really knew what he was up to, that some believe even his early death was a fake-out.
Perhaps there’s a genius to Andy Kaufman’s work. Certainly, there were no other artists like him. But watching Miloš Forman’s 1999 biopic Man on the Moon, we’re left with no understanding of his work and wince along with the dozens of people on screen who are frustrated and enraged by his art. He violently wrestles women, introducing himself with macho chest-beating. Challenged by a real wrestler, he hurls abuse at the rural white crowd before getting the shit beaten out of him to a great roar of applause.
The problem is that Forman wants us to think this guy is some sort of bastion of innocence, an outsider genius who must be protected at all costs even as his behavior befits the most odious of trolls. Jim Carrey, still in his prime, plays Kaufman as a wide-eyed naïf. He’s not a comedian but a “song-and-dance man,” which with wounded innocence he seems to believe is a viable thing in the modern world. He becomes a surrogate Robin Williams character, a lovable clown whose mission is to bring sparks of joy into people’s lives.
Then what’s with the ugly scenes at the wrestling arena? There’s little sympathy for Kaufman when he pouts and mopes because a TV engineer won’t comply with his demand to blur the broadcast with static. He sounds like a child, pointing a finger at “Colin” like he stole his candy. Colin seems like a reasonable, working-class dude trying not to get fired; meanwhile, Kaufman stomps his feet like a child until he gets his way. The worker’s contempt for the artiste seems like Forman’s way of showing the obstacles great artists have to mount for their vision to escape unscathed, but the man’s right: the audience is going to wonder what’s wrong with their set.
Why does Kaufman want this to happen? He doesn’t tell us; neither does Forman. The only explanation seems to be that he wants to fuck with people, which doesn’t square with the Patch Adams shtick we see at his final Carnegie show as the adoring audience lights up with delight at his production of a live Santa Claus. There’s a final scene where his buddy Bob Zmuda (maybe) performs as Kaufman’s Tony Clifton character, and with each rude thrust of his fist we see the camera zoom in on one of the comedy club’s caricatures of the medium’s greats. The implication is Kaufman has joined that lineage. But the movie makes no effort to explain why he’s earned it.
One can understand the sympathy Forman, who was censored in his native Czechoslovakia and driven to Hollywood, would have for an outsider artist who triumphed despite adversity. But Forman has a résumé to back it up. This is the man who made Amadeus and The Fireman’s Ball. He’s a real filmmaker, and we see glimpses of that here. The scenes shot in the Philippines, where Kaufman travels at the end of his life in hopes of a “miracle cure,” are filmed with a humid stillness that underscores the performer’s hopelessness at dying in this unfamiliar corner of the world. We’re glad Forman triumphed and found the budget to make great movies.
But there’s less sympathy for an artist who challenges people’s expectations of art not out of subversion or vision but because they simply didn’t have a clue. It seems like Andy Kaufman had an overarching, sweeping, calculated vision for everything he’s doing. Certainly, that’s central to his cult. But throughout Man on the Moon, he doesn’t come across as a visionary. He comes across as someone unable to see what a mess he’s making.