In 1999 Jim Carrey starred in Man on the Moon, a screen biography of the late Andy Kaufman. It was smart casting, because Kaufman was on the brink of being entirely forgotten, and Carrey was just about the biggest comic actor on the planet. It also turned out that Carrey was a devoted Kaufman fan, even willing to audition for director Milos Foreman by videotaping himself doing some of Kaufman's old bits. Once the role was his, Carrey dove in with such commitment that he demanded everyone on the set refer to him as "Andy," and, just as Kaufman often did in his heyday, Carrey remained "in character" for the duration of the production. Carrey also hired his own crew to shoot behind the scenes footage, which he'd hoped to use as part of the original film's DVD release. Universal objected, fearing the footage made Carrey look "like an asshole." As we can now watch the previously unseen footage on Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, the studio had a point.
Of course, Carrey is the best type of asshole. But how do we respond when he suggests that he was channeling Kaufman's spirit? "It was," Carrey says, "as if Andy came back to make his movie, and he turned the world upside down." When filming scenes with the original cast of Taxi, the ABC sitcom where Kaufman starred as the lovable Latka Gravas, Carrey is relentless, irritating his co-stars until the discomfort is visible in their eyes. "I'd feel guilty," Carrey says, "wondering if I'd gone too far. Then I'd wonder what Andy would do. And Andy would take things even further." Foreman is exasperated, and we feel for him, but Carrey is fascinating, like fireworks that unexpectedly spell out obscene words.
People will no doubt discuss the "meta" quality of the movie, for it's a documentary about a movie within a movie, and it'll set your head spinning. It also comes with a big dollop of Carrey's "None of us really exist" hokum, which has been his stance of late. Yet, as he now sits behind a bushy beard, his eyes smaller and more piercing than I remember, he tells the tale of his life and this movie like a melancholy guru. He reached the top of his profession, and found it lacking; now he's gone existential on us. Whether or not I share his views on how the universe works, I could listen to him for hours.
The documentary reminds us of how incredibly famous Carrey was in the 1990s (which is likely the reason he got away with so much crap), and his gargantuan reserves of silliness, but also of how great Kaufman was in his 1970s heyday. It's worth seeing just for Carrey's impeccable version of Kaufman's alter-ego, the nasty lounge singer Tony Clifton. The gag Carrey plays at the Playboy Mansion is priceless; Kaufman would've approved.
Some wonder if Carrey's recent philosophical musings are merely a new unleashing of his Kaufmanesque side, as if he's testing us, putting us on, but I don't think so. Not only do I think he believes in what he's saying, but I think he may be done with entertaining us. When he's done, he's done. Even when he shed the Kaufman costume, he wouldn't put it on again, not even when R.E.M. wanted him to appear as Kaufman in a music video.
As I watched Jim & Andy, I wondered what Kaufman would've done with Carrey's monstrous success. And I wondered if Carrey might've been happier if he'd been a cult figure, like Kaufman, rather than a world renowned movie star. And I wondered if Carrey really thought he had brought Kaufman back to life, somehow, for the filming of Man on the Moon. And I wondered why there was such an all-pervading sense of gloom around Jim & Andy. Is it because Kaufman died young? Is it because Carrey already seems like part of our past?
What is amazing is how Carrey got so many members of the crew to go along with him. Hairdressers, actors, and members of Kaufman's family appear to genuinely embrace him as Kaufman. Carrey gets teary-eyed when he talks about meeting Kaufman's daughter, and again when he talks about his own father, a budding sax player who gave up his dreams in order to support his family. Such heartfelt moments are unexpected, but they work. It's one of the damnedest documentaries ever made.