Title: Jim & Andy
Rating: 4 Stars
This is a documentary following Jim Carrey as he is making the Andy Kaufman biopic, Man on the Moon.
I remember when the film came out. There was substantial word of mouth that Carrey had gone all in on the part. On the set, he would only answer to Andy, or if he was in the Tony Clifton character, as Tony.
What I didn’t know is that at the time he allowed a film crew to follow him on set during its filming. I also don’t know why it took nearly twenty years for someone to decide to make a documentary out of the footage.
Perhaps the time was required to allow Carrey to gain some perspective. The film is interspersed between an interview that took place recently and footage from his time on the set. In his current interview, he is heavily bearded, looks at the camera with calmness, and speaks with great serenity and self-understanding. This is in stark contrast to his near manic stage presence that he usually exhibited at the height of his fame in the ’90s.
It appears clear that at some point over the last decade or so, he’s seemed to have achieved some peace and has resolved some of the demons that were chasing him. The levels of depth that he reached filming Man on the Moon seemed helpful to him in this pursuit. Good for him, but reconciling his known anti-vaxxer stance with this great guru wisdom and serenity that he appears to have now caused me some cognitive dissonance.
What made this film rise substantially in my estimation is how it explores identity, especially in the context of acting.
Let’s start with Andy Kaufman. His own life was essentially an act. He completely sold himself on his characters, specifically foreign man, Tony Clifton, and his wrestling persona. He never broke character. An argument can be made that he was forever the little boy playacting in his bedroom. It was there that he could imagine being happy and so it was there that he insisted living. I once read a biography of Kaufman (and this scene is also in Man on the Moon), where he announces to his closest friends that he has cancer. None of them believe him and specifically Bob Zmuda (who was his partner in crime on most of his escapades) begins to plot how they can use the cancer for effect. It takes him some time to convince everyone that he actually is seriously sick. What kind of life are you living and how many secrets are you keeping when your closest friends don’t believe you when you say that you’re dying?
Into this comes Jim Carrey, who himself has clearly has some identity issues. He’s fiercely proud and protective of his father, who was a larger than life figure that sacrificed for his family. He then fails his family by losing his job while in his 50’s. For a time, they’re homeless. Out of that environment comes Carrey, desperate for fame, fortune, and some kind of validation or acceptance.
Carrey tells the story that before he starting filming, he went down to the ocean and quietly meditated. There, he felt Andy Kaufman enter his body and basically tell him, I’ve got this.
From that point forward, Carrey no longer believes he’s acting. He’s actually channeling the spirit of Kaufman. That is why he insists that everyone on set refer to him as Andy (or Tony). This includes even the much renowned, elderly director, Milos Forman, who is perplexed and frustrated by Carrey’s (er, Kaufman’s antics).
At one point Forman calls Carrey when he is off set. Forman tells Carrey that this is not working for him. Carrey tells him that Forman can formally fire Kaufman/Clifton and then Carrey would be willing to still do the movie as an impersonation of Kaufman/Clifton. There is a short pause and Forman agrees to continue on as before.
There are other striking scenes. There is the scene where Carrey, as Tony Clifton, storms out of the daily screening room, criticizing the performance of Carrey to Forman. Years later, Carrey admits that the criticism was valid.
There is the scene in the makeup trailer between Carrey (getting ready as Kaufman) and the actor playing Kaufman’s father. The father comes into the trailer to tell Andy that he’s proud of him. Andy, who had a conflicted relationship with his father, would have been overcome by this sentiment, and Carrey, as Andy, is. The scene is so touching that makeup artists (not actors) break into tears. This is some serious hard core method acting.
In the final scenes, where Andy is clearly dying of cancer, even off camera Carrey is feeble, gentle, and accepting of death. At all times, he is pushed around in a wheelchair and has to be helped when he stands.
Although not filmed, Andy’s daughter (that he apparently never met) came to visit the set. There, Carrey and the daughter had a private conversation and apparently this gave the daughter some measure of peace.
What to make of all of this? We have an actor completely caught up in the portrayal of an actor that himself was always in role. Is getting consumed by a part an occupational hazard of actors? I think of Daniel Day Lewis in pretty much any role, but specifically as Christy Brown, the cerebral palsy artist, in My Left Foot. I think of Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison in The Doors.
Even larger, what is identity? If someone is always playing a role, does that basically become his identity?
And how does that play into our lives? Do we even have a true identity? Or is our identity just the roles that we consciously play in our lives?
Is there no there there?
At one point, late in the movie, Carrey as Andy is talking to Bob Zmuda (the real Zmuda) and Bob is talking to Carrey as if he’s actually talking to Andy. For a moment, you can actually see that Bob thinks that he’s truly talking to Andy. Bob then takes a hard look at Jim and realizes that Jim is just actually fucking with him.
In that moment, you have Bob Zmuda, who was the key person that enabled Andy Kaufman to channel his roles, realize that he’s being played by Jim Carrey, who Zmuda is helping to channel Kaufman as his fictional Kaufman in turn channels the characters that Zmuda originally helped Kaufman channel.
You got all of that?