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THOUGH ACT TO FOLLOW
COULD ANYONE OTHER THAN JIM CARREY BRING ANDY KAUFMAN BACK TO LIFE?

Forget Jim Carrey's splendid brilliance in "Man on the Moon" for a second. Go back with me to 1977 and Bud Friedman's Improvisation West club in Los Angeles.

Andy Kaufman schleps two plump conga drums onstage with him, which he never uses. We in the audience know that whatever comes next will be special. We're keyed up. Some of us are already serious admirers. We've already seen him a couple times on "Saturday Night Live" and a short-lived TV show called "Van Dyke and Co."

Kaufman's first bit is mime. He picks up an invisible heavy object at one end of the stage and slowly carries it to the other, staggering under its imaginary weight. Then he turns, gets a dopey, saucer-eyed expression, sticks his finger in the air as if to say "aha!" and seems to spot another large object where the first came from. So he mimes a return to the original spot and laboriously schleps that one across the stage, too.

At this point, his act has consisted of a great deal of schlepping, real and imaginary, so even the sympathetic members of the audience are disoriented and confused. Is it funny? We don't know yet. It gets worse when Kaufman repeats that same mime over and over and over. Blood pressures soar. Some people laugh nervously, indulgently.

When it is unendurable, Kaufman stops and casually walks back to the stage where all those invisible heavy objects kept appearing. He looks back to the spot where he'd moved them all, mimes the "aha!" expression and walks over and begins to haul them all back where they came from.

The audience explodes. It's a shaggy dog story in mime and that was the payoff. Our sudden moment of understanding was the story's "punch line." Later, Kaufman uses his cassette recorder to force selected members of the audience to mime children's records along with him ("Thursday, peas, Friday, A-roast-a-beef.") The audience itself is the benign joke in that bit too, as we all discover what gurgling, passive infants we really are. (Just before his death, he took an entire Carnegie Hall audience out for milk and cookies after his show.)

How on earth does one bring that to the screen, audience disorientation and all? Who could possibly direct a movie about the transcendent genius of club comedy in his generation? Who could play Andy Kaufman? Who has the innocence to portray the baby-faced man from the mythical land of Caspiar? Never mind that Nicolas Cage, Sean Penn, Edward Norton and Kevin Spacey wanted the part.

"Man on the Moon" is a stirring rarity, a movie that gets some fearfully difficult things very, very right. Milos Forman, the same director whose "Amadeus" is one of the greatest films ever made about an artist of any sort, is the man who was clever enough to understand that he was doing the biography of an act and a deeply profound one that happened to be located in places -- nightclubs and TV shows -- where genius is the last thing one expects to find. His movie begins with an act of grand audience disorientation that may be singular in a mainstream movie.

And, to play Andy Kaufman, he's got Jim Carrey, the rubber-faced wild man who caught Kaufman's act as a young struggling and admiring comic.

To watch Carrey as Kaufman is a privilege rare in movies. What you're seeing is an understanding that is total and radiates from somewhere deep within. Penn, Norton, Spacey, Cage et al are mere actors. They could have played Kaufman. Perhaps Cage was extreme enough to allow Andy Kaufman to play him. But they could never have known the feeling of exploring the audience's very psyche from a nightclub stage -- something that Carrey himself did for years in comedy that bordered on ghastliness and even horror (remember Fire Marshall Bill on TV's "In Living Color").

Any fool actor could do the life of Andy Kaufman, starting with the father who told him "this is not healthy, you should be out playing sports," and ending with the death from lung cancer that no one could believe because it seemed like the ultimate Andy Kaufman joke -- and still does. (A wonderful moment in the movie: when Kaufman's brother is informed of Andy's imminent death, he thinks it's a gag, too.) What they could never do is Andy Kaufman's act -- not so that it would be truly funny and truly and deeply strange.

Carrey can.

And does.

And it's one of the great things to see in movies in this season and this week, the most crowded major movie opening week of the year. Carrey is glorious as Andy Kaufman, the role that makes all doubt about him as an actor vanish. Milos Forman is brilliant at staying on the outside of Andy Kaufman as long as he can. He understands that it was always out here, among the audience, that the action really was. That was Andy Kaufman's genius.

So we watch Carrey as Kaufman do all those rhapsodically obnoxious things that caused his contemporaries to marvel and fear for his career and life -- "intergender" wrestling that was both a sublime parody of wrestling and the popular media's simplistic slant on feminism, his creation of angry, fourth-rate lounge singer Tony Clifton, who was The Swamp Thing of entertainment, the hideous and charismatic Id of American showbiz. He didn't just do Tony Clifton to revolt audiences, he insisted on a guest shot for Tony Clifton on "Taxi," where he was so obnoxious that he was thrown off the Paramount lot.

He could certainly massage and please an unadventurous crowd if he had to. Audiences loved Latka on "Taxi." Elvis Presley himself thought that Kaufman's Elvis impression was as good as it gets.

The executive producer of "Man on the Moon" is Danny De Vito, who plays Kaufman's understanding manager George Shapiro. What that means in practical terms is that the "Taxi" cast is here, briefly, playing their bewildered selves. You'll spy, on the fly, comics galore in the cast -- Richard Belzer, Caroline Rhea.

Courtney Love, who seems to be on Forman retainer for his movies (she was Althea Flynt in "The People Vs. Larry Flynt") plays Kaufman's beleaguered girlfriend.

To keep his clever biography of the act going, Forman has to tell us the heartrending story of the life, too -- but not so much that the great showbiz deconstructionist of modern times is sentimentalized to death.

"Man on the Moon" is a wonderful film with a great performance in the middle of it -- until the last 30 seconds, that is. I hate them, frankly.

It could have been a great and chilling cinematic moment -- the triumph of Tony Clifton and the forces of darkness over Andy Kaufman's lifelong search for showbiz enlightenment. But everything dissolves into baloney, followed by the egregious pseudo-poetic bathos of the Michael Stipe R.E.M. song that gives the movie its title.

The last "uplifting" 30 seconds of "Man on the Moon" are a violation of everything that Andy Kaufman's professional life stood for.

But, then, Jim Carrey should have the last word. At the end of Bob Zmuda's "Andy Kaufman Revealed: Best Friend Tells All" (Little Brown, 306 pages, $24), Carrey writes this in a "backward" to Zmuda's book (you have to hold it up to a mirror to read it):

"Are you unsettled, angry or even bewildered? Good! That was always your purpose! You're still playing your parts brilliantly. After all, you were the stars of the show all along. Andy was the director and the audience."

Exactly.

RATING: 4 STARS