I never knew Andy Kaufman. I have a few vague memories of seeing
Latka on Taxi, and that’s about it. I knew he was some sort of pop
culture figure, because he was the subject of the REM song "Man on the
Moon." I knew he had done something with wrestling, but I wasn’t sure what.
A person I do know is Jim Carrey. Jim Carrey is one of the
definitive comedians/actors of my generation (or at least, my era); I’ve grown
up with him (though how much either of us has "grown up" is
debatable). Therefore, I was curious to see how well Jim Carrey could pull off
playing a role in which he had to capture the personality of another – quite
different – comedian.
The result is intriguing. Whenever Carrey plays one of Kaufman’s
menagerie of characters – Latka, Tony Clifton, Elvis, etc. – he is purely
Kaufman (or rather, purely Kaufman doing someone else). But then his voice drops
to normal, and he’s Jim Carrey acting as Andy Kaufman. Perhaps it’s a product of
the times; decades ago, it might have been more commonplace to have an a actor
portray a real-life person who was famous only a few short years before. As it
is, whenever Carrey’s character speaks "normally," I see Truman, I see
that drunk from the TV-movie Doing Time on Maple Drive, I see Carrey as
he acted when interviewed by Kurt Loder on MTV. I don’t see Andy; but then, I
didn’t know Andy.
The plot of the film moves swiftly from Kaufman’s childhood to
his first break-out show at a nightclub, when Kaufman, affecting a strange
foreign accent (the origin of Latka), went through four or five bad impressions
before bursting into a dead-on Elvis (in the film, the number of bad impressions
is shortened to 2). After meeting agent George Shapiro (played by Kaufman’s Taxi
costar Danny Devito), Kaufman’s career takes off – much to his consternation.
The rest of the film follows Kaufman’s attempt to stay true to his particular,
quirky brand of guerilla comedy – at one college appearance, his entire
performance consists of reading the entire novel The Great Gatsby aloud –
while his agent, friends, and network bosses try to rein him into the
mainstream. Kaufman’s only allies are Bob Zmuda (Paul Giamatti, aka "Pig
Vomit" of Howard Stern’s Private Parts fame), his best friend and
writer, and his girlfriend Lynne Margulies (Courtney Love), who is the only one
who may know the closest thing to the "real" Andy Kaufman.
The performances are all excellent, but the plot has several
faults. Both Giamatti and Love are underused, which is strange, considering
their importance to Kaufman’s life; his romance with Margulies is particularly
underplayed, a very disappointing aspect of the film. There is no sign of the
"real" Andy Kaufman here; we’re not getting under his skin. What we
get from Bob Zmuda, who co-produced the film, is Penn and Teller; Zmuda gives us
the machinations behind all of Kaufman’s gags, but no insight into the person
that was Andy Kaufman. This may, of course, be simply because Zmuda himself
never met the man – perhaps no one did.
The laughs, nonetheless, are there, and the film is touching and
poignant at times, as one would expect. Kaufman’s final days are somewhat
abridged, but since that was doubtlessly an intensely personal time, few details
may be known about it. But the funeral scene, both sad, funny, and inspiring, is
a perfect metaphor for the entire film; an amusing elegy to a brilliant, often
misunderstood, but beloved comedian.