Before his death on May 16, 1984, Andy Kaufman had been suffering from an unabating cough. His television appearances became sparser and his body spindlier. He disclosed that he had an illness, though he kept the diagnosis secret. He turned to a diet of fruits and vegetables, received palliative radiotherapy, and, in desperation, sought a New Age treatment, the chicanerous psychic surgery. Soon thereafter, he died, at the age of 35, of an extremely rare form of lung cancer. Some insisted that he faked his death as a lark. After all, this was the incendiary comedian who staged a long-running feud with Jerry “The King” Lawler; who had an old woman fake a heart attack during a show at Carnegie Hall; and who touted himself as the “Intergender Wrestling Champion of the World.” Rumors of the funnyman’s exaggerated demise were egged-on by sporadic appearances of Tony Clifton, the bilious lounge singer created and portrayed by Kaufman and Bob Zmuda.
Kaufman’s friends, all deft griots and unreliable narrators, exacerbated and altered the story of his continued existence, perpetuating the tale of his final hoax. He’s a Monk in New Mexico, a barista in Pasadena. (Eager-eyed fans even awaited his triumphant return on SNL’s 40th anniversary special, in 2015.) Kaufman was fascinated by death and resurrection, and these ideas were a powerful impetus for much of his work, like his impersonation of Elvis, a man who’d been a ghost of his former self for years before his death. Yes, Kaufman is dead, yet he lives on, lingering like an apparition. And as Chris Smith’s Jim & Andy makes clear, the rumors of Kaufman’s sham death, as well as the influence of his extreme comedic style, haunted the set of Milos Forman’s 1999 film Man on the Moon, which starred Jim Carrey as the comedian. But Carrey didn’t just assume the role of Kaufman; he became Kaufman, as if he’d slipped on his skin and had been inhabited by his spirit.
Jim & Andy is largely composed of footage shot in 1999 by documentarian Lynne Margulies, Kaufman’s former girlfriend, who also directed the riotous Kaufman wrestling film I’m from Hollywood. Smith’s documentary depicts Carrey’s unwavering dedication to his role in Man on the Moon, often to the irritation of his co-stars and most of the production crew, and how he lost—and found—himself in the process. The film posits that Carrey’s performance isn’t simply a form of method acting, but a means of reviving Kaufman from the dead. In the modern interview footage, Carrey, whose affinity for painting was the subject of a short doc earlier this year, rarely resembles the wild man one associates with him. He pontificates on free will, saying he feels fine just drifting through space on tectonic plates, and his earnestness ensures that his philosophizing and ontological reveries never become portentous.
Speaking with Smith in 2017, Carrey has a calm, contemplative demeanor, one dichotomous to his vexing antics from 1999. With a voluminous beard mottled with white, he postulates, “I have a Hyde inside me who shows up when there are people watching.” He muses on the nature of acting, on the deep emotional excavations that take place while improvising. When speaking with Michel Gondry, a year before production started on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Carrey was told that he appeared unwell, “broken.” But Gondry told him “do not get well,” to stay “broken” for the next year, for his performance. “That’s how fucked up this industry is,” Carrey says, unamused.
“I don’t smoke,” Carrey says, in 1999, sucking down a cigarette. He dances, pantless, with Courtney Love; throws a folding chair at Jerry Lawler, whose infamous spat with Kaufman still stirs debate; and annoys his (and formerly Kaufman’s) co-stars, particularly Judd Hirsch, while Danny DeVito watches, eyes agape. “It’s surreal,” DeVito says of Carrey’s emulation. Forman, no neophyte, seems befuddled, not knowing how to handle the untamable actor, and eventually stops trying. Everyone addresses Carrey as “Andy,” or as “Tony.” What initially appears to be a case of an egotistical star aping his idol, taking a gag too far, gradually reveals itself as an intensely personal self-vivisection by Carrey. Jim & Andy is at heart about the nature of acting, of comedy, and about the freedome that Kaufman represents as an artist. For the role, which he felt destined to play, the rubber-faced Carrey transcended the gangly, go-for-broke histrionics that made him famous. In Kaufman, he found a Dadaistic liberation from his own problems. When he finally reemerged, he felt lost. “I didn’t know what my politics were,” he says. “I didn’t know who I was.”
Kaufman galvanized audiences with bravado showmanship. Unstructured and untethered to any definable form of comedy, he was a kind of anarchist cut-up, an agent of comedic chaos. Carrey tapped into this chaos. The great appeal of Jim & Andy is the wealth of footage showing Carrey-as-Kaufman (and, more fascinating, Carrey-as-Kaufman-as-Clifton). In Man on the Moon, Carrey’s Kauffman is a sad, disconsolate, acidulous asshole, but a brilliant asshole. His Clifton may be more rancorous than Kaufman’s. (The makeup is certainly far more intricate.) Smith, known for his off-kilter docs whose structure and aesthetic reflect their subjects, allows Margulies’s footage to take center stage. Unlike Kaufman, Smith uses structure rigidly, sequencing clips of the real Kaufman and Carrey’s Kaufman and Carrey’s other performances to support Carrey’s retrospective anecdotes and ruminations.
Kaufman enshrouded himself in a self-made enigma, a role he played for the public, but stories about the flesh-and-blood man behind the act abound. He was a bad driver, a dedicated practitioner of transcendental meditation, a TV addict. His favorite film was American Graffiti, his favorite show The Twilight Zone. He was often quiet and shy, and he wanted to make people laugh. None of these details are in Jim & Andy, which focuses instead on the artistry of Kaufman, and on how Carrey tried to resurrect the man knowing him only through his acts. Performances within performances based on performances in performances. The film is less about Kaufman than it is about the idea of Kaufman, about how artists channel their influences and keep the dead alive.