Seeing the biopic "Man On the Moon" is like being at a seance in a comedy club.
Director Milos Forman and star Jim Carrey conjure up the spirit of their subject -- Andy Kaufman, that most eccentric of professional oddballs, that patron saint of the practical joke -- with such effective Ouija-dom that at times is as if his ghost has taken over the film.
All the buzz you've probably heard about Carrey's performance is true. A Kaufman aficionado from way back, he does more than just mimic Andy's mannerisms and repeat his routines -- it's like Kaufman has slipped inside Carrey's skin (shall I compare thee to "Being John Malkovich"?) and won a battle for control of his body. There's still a wee bit of Carrey peeking out, but that sliver his own style serves to create a fascinating Kaufman-Carrey alloy.
This is Forman's second mesmerizing celebrity biography in a row, and it follows a fun-house version the formula that worked so well in "The People Vs. Larry Flynt" -- a visionary-against-the-establishment yarn with a slightly fairy tale touch.
The film narrows its focus on Kaufman's celebrity years, when his suffocating role as Latka on "Taxi" gave him the freedom to get away with just about every wild, ambitious, insane hoax he imagined. This was the period of his fallaciously funny foray into "inter-gender" professional wrestling that incensed millions who took him seriously, and of the amplification of his alter ego, the vulgar, paunchy, chain-smoking, hard-drinking, rabble-rousing lounge singer, Tony Clifton.
Kaufman's most famous schticks are faithfully recreated by Carrey, including his Foreign Man-does-Elvis impersonation, his "Mighty Mouse" theme song sing-along and his completely off-the-wall Carnage Hall concert that culminated in Andy taking the entire audience out for milk and cookies.
But while the movie pokes around in Kaufman's head a little, it doesn't really pull back the curtain on his life enough to fully satisfy. It's in such a rush to get to the funny bits and heavy helpings of bittersweet irony that his childhood, his rocky comedy club years, his and early "Saturday Night Live" appearances blow by in about five minutes of screen time.
Which isn't to say the film is not an amazing portrait of comedy's most innovative wacko -- it is. But I can watch the real Kaufman doing Kaufman's bits at home on video. Where's the story of how he got there?
However, the way the film is structured is, in itself, an homage to Andy Kaufman's style and the joy he took in toying with audiences. Some of the disclosure I was waiting for in frustration is, finally, revealed after Forman withholds it just long enough that it ticked me off -- and pushing spectators buttons was Kaufman's favorite pastimes.
I admit it. They got me.
In style and substance, the picture is infected with Kaufman's spirit from the opening sequence -- in which Andy appears in his Foreign Man/Latka persona to announce, as the closing credits roll, that the movie is over and everyone should go home.
In addition to Carrey's terrific turn that proves the promise he showed in "The Truman Show" wasn't a fluke, Forman also gleans admirable showings from whiny wiseacre Paul Giamatti ("The Negotiator," "Private Parts") as Kaufman collaborator Bob Zmuda, "Flynt" alumni Courtney Love as his understanding girlfriend, and Danny Devito as his agent, who is a little too quick to declare Andy a genius upon first meeting him and who is burdened with much of the movie's poignancy-injection dialogue.
But even at its most forcibly sentimental, "Man On the Moon" still smacks of underhanded humor, following a cancer-crippled Andy to the Philippines for "psychic surgery," where he realizes, with an ironic smile, that this faith cure is as big a put-on as any hoax he pulled in his entire career.