The soul of an absurdist movie threatens to break out of the body of an otherwise conventionally told tale in "Man on the Moon," Milos Forman's often riotously funny take on the life of comic Andy Kaufman. That over-the-edge inner flicker struggles to emerge right at the start, in a taunting bit of cinematic performance art that has Kaufman doppelganger Jim Carrey attempting to hoodwink viewers.
The inspired black-and-white sequence-precisely the sort of stunt that the pop icon himself might have pulled -- is a delight, but late arrivals might need this warning: Relax. Everything is under control. Andy is in charge.
Control, of course, and manipulation that was sometimes as cruel as it was hilarious were the specialties of the elusive entertainer, who made a commercial breakthrough as English-garbling garage mechanic Latka Gravas on the '70s sitcom "Taxi."
Now, 15 years after his death at age 35 from lung cancer, he's making a comeback: Two biographies preceded the film, and soon to come are a segment of the A&E channel's "Biography" program and a documentary on the making of the movie, shot by Kaufman's girlfriend Lynne Margulies and financed by Carrey.
"Man on the Moon," Forman's first film since 1996's "The People vs. Larry Flynt," is a mesmerizing tale sure to thrill devotees of Kaufman's brand of off-kilter stunt humor, which was so ahead of the curve that it was misunderstood and often maligned. Those who know of his talents only by reputation may become converts. Some, admittedly, will remain unconvinced and find the guy's shtick as annoying as ever.
Carrey proves that his triumph in last year's The Truman Show was no fluke: He burrows deep into Kaufman's various personas and turns in an absolutely convincing incarnation of his hero. The weightiest work of Carrey's career, and possibly the best performance of the year, it's sure to grab Oscar attention.
The screenplay, from "The People vs. Larry Flynt" writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, touches only briefly on Kaufman's suburban upbringing before plunging into a greatest-hits collection of his most memorable moments. His stand-up act opens with a faux foreigner's botched impression of Jimmy Carter and closes with a drop-dead Elvis Presley impersonation, mystifying nightclub owners but intriguing Hollywood agent George Shapiro (Danny DeVito, a former Taxi cast member and a producer of the movie). "I'm not a comedian," Kaufman says to Shapiro. "I don't do jokes. I don't even know what's funny."
That inability to fit in or to settle comfortably into a niche that mainstream America might appreciate is underscored by everything that follows in Kaufman's restless career. We get the Mighty Mouse routine from his "Saturday Night Live" debut, as he looks around nervously, sips water and then lip-synchs the chorus (and only the chorus) of the cartoon's theme song. Later, we watch "Taxi" appearances, with Judd Hirsch, Marilu Henner and Carol Kane as themselves. Stardom, though, isn't enough to stop people's annoyance at Kaufman-like the ire of feminists who take umbrage at his sneering, patently sexist routine in a series of mixed-gender wrestling matches.
Nor does it help his cause when, in the name of an elaborate prank, he foists alter ego Tony Clifton on the world. Clifton, brought to life alternately by Kaufman and his writing partner Bob Zmuda (Paul Giamatti), is the world's most obnoxious lounge singer, who wreaks havoc on the "Taxi" set and abuses audience members unmercifully.
In the end "Man on the Moon," despite Carrey's brilliant portrayal, fails to reveal anything about Kaufman's motivations or to illuminate the identity of the man behind so many masks. "You don't know the real me," he tells Margulies (Courtney Love). "There isn't a real you," she retorts. His response: "Oh yeah. I forgot." The movie succumbs to this idea, leaving us enormously entertained but vaguely unsatisfied.