Milos Forman Milos Forman: "Man on the moon" - Canned Laughter

Milos Forman films the story of the US comic idol Andy Kaufman with Jim Carrey.

Von Cristina Moles Kaupp


Like every bad joke, "Man on the Moon", too, finds those willing to laugh at it. After all, what Milos Forman is dealing with here is comedy - or more precisely, a major tickler of the American funny bone, Andy Kaufman. Forman traces his biography from his early awkward day school period to his early death, brought about by cancer in 1984 when he was 35. And what's more: Jokes à la Kaufman - first the credits and then the film, a bit of an appetizer for those in the know when it comes to what's actually all but unknowable, American humor. Jim Carrey, making faces as he's obliged to do, has been allowed to lend his rubber visage to Kaufman, and another actor, who's usually on call for the embarrassing jokes, has finally snapped himself a calmer role: Danny DeVito plays his agent.

Forman shows the comic as a man without qualities who just wants to entertain and languishes behind his facades. In the beginning, Kaufman presents himself as a shy stand-up comedian and Elvis imitator, meets with modest success and plunges into the machinery of the media. "Taxi" is the name of the sitcom designed for the masses. Only reluctantly does he slip into the role of the mechanic Latka Gravas, but audiences love this poor fellow with his broken English. So Kaufman desperately needs to find a way to let off steam. He invents Tony Clifton, a bloated outcast with stringy, greasy hair, for whom no gag is too tasteless, no punchline too insipid. He loves the constant insecurity and the tirades from the audience and presents himself as a cynical and destructive character.

If faked disturbances in the reception send television audiences running to their sets to adjust those dials, that's right up Kaufman's alley. He wants action, not performance. He once even read - in its entirety - The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald instead of giving, as demanded, a live version of Latka. Forman gleefully wallows in these anecdotes and delves into Kaufman's dark sides. For example, when the self-proclaimed "Inter-Gender-Wrestling Champion" infuriates women with obscene macho slogans to the point that they join him in the ring, where he finishes the job by physically stamping them into the ground. Disgusting. Where does Kaufman's mask end? Is there a person behind it at all? The questions are often asked but they remain unanswered. Instead, the constant pointing to the tears of the clown. Kaufman remains a puzzle, and that's what does the film in. Too many bad gags, too little story. Is it true that humor is what happens when you laugh anyway?

"Man on the Moon". USA, 1999. Directed by Milos Forman. Screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. Camera: Anastas Michos. With: Jim Carrey, Danny DeVito, Courtney Love, Paul Giamatti and Vincent Schiavelli. Distributed by Mutual Film International. 102 minutes.



© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2000
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