Man on Man on The Moon directed by ...
Kaufman gets canonized for legitimizing impulsive egomaniacal behavior. The 70s comic's best-known personas?as Latka Gravas, an immigrant stooge eventually used on the tv series Taxi, and Tony Clifton, a boorish lounge singer?demonstrated two kinds of idiocy. One was sickeningly cute, the other disgustingly abrasive, but Kaufman presumed to make both acceptable by begging the audience's indulgence (and embarrassment) through laughter. Kaufman's gimmicks made money as they also made enemies, but only with the passing of time?the stiffening of emotional identification in the 80s?were his assaults made socially acceptable. Starting with REM's 1992 hit record, which gives this movie its title, Michael Stipe's spurious poetry resurrected Kaufman as a cultural icon. This cross-genre gambit was rare?an instance of ignorant tv nostalgia (a redundancy, I suspect).
Looking back on Kaufman's fame and audacity, director Milos Forman and the screenwriting team Karaszewski and Alexander have no perspective on Kaufman except respecting the fact of his success and viewing his life through that bass-ackwards lens. Karaszewski and Alexander are such jaded, wide-eyed idolaters (they previously wrote Ed Wood and The People Vs. Larry Flynt) that they never stop to ask the basic question: maybe success does not legitimize screwed-up behavior? Karaszewski and Alexander would do well to study Citizen Kane rather than Hard Copy. Their scripts seem typical products of this era through the merely impudent interest in subcultural traits. Mildly rebellious Karaszewski and Alexander favor freaks without a cause. And somehow, their slacker's interest in homegrown anomie meshes with Forman's own foreigner's contempt. Even in films he made in his native Czechoslovakia (like The Fireman's Ball), Forman always was interested in disturbed conduct as a sign of human essence?and now, especially, America's essence. Tim Burton enhanced Ed Wood through his fond look at social oddities, but Forman never wastes his affection on characters. Still, only fools would buy this cold view of Kaufman's crudeness and madness, especially since it is uncritically mixed in with a history of late 20th-century show business. Some reviewers have called the film "a celebration"?and they're only wrong in settling for that.
It is unintentionally laughable to see Forman attempt formalist tricks like the opening scene, in which Kaufman?addressing the movie audience out of time?peeks from different sides of the frame. This is a director with practically no visual imagination, but who disgraces film's realistic tradition by exploiting human misery (he's the anti-Mike Leigh). There's actually less to learn here in Forman and Karaszewski and Alexander's acceptance of the inhumane than in the now-uncool story of organized people in The Hurricane. Whether Forman is inflicting his usual cinematic misery or copping to Kaufman's quasi-subversion is difficult to tell. Moon is never as insightful or imaginative as Arthur Penn's 1989 Penn and Teller Get Killed. In that underrated curio, Penn used the magic duo's pointed comedy to flirt with showbiz illusion, but he also, brilliantly, played with the conventions of cinematic storytelling. Penn got at existentialism with Pirandellian wit and genuine screen bravado. By concentrating on showbiz fakery Penn didn't smugly congratulate himself that he was pondering man's fate. Stipe's silly equation of the NASA moonwalk (patriotic faith) with showbiz hucksterism (pop escapism) is as naive as these filmmakers' attempt to validate Kaufman's bad taste as a sign of their own sophistication.
Moon's whole illusion-vs.-reality shtick is a dodge. The film doesn't get to the essence of Kaufman's character; especially not through Jim Carrey's seriously applied skills. Clearly a superior performer, Carrey makes Kaufman seem accomplished when he was simply impenetrable. (If Robin Williams is the clown who wants to be Hamlet, Kaufman is the clown who wants to be Iago.) Carrey's concentration on belittling his own inspired slapstick is frightening rather than compelling. It seems false to what we always knew about desperate-to-succeed (or please) performers. When Carrey appears on MTV saying, "The X generation is ready for [Kaufman]," it's an insult to the allegiance he has won?as if Kaufman anticipated MTV's Puck or Tom Green or embodied "rock 'n' roll attitude." Unlike the contemporaneous, unsettling Sex Pistols, Kaufman (and his insanity) offered no truth, just egomania. Maybe he was the Beck of comedy.
From Stipe's wack musings to Jim Carrey's squandered sweat, nothing about Moon matches the moment in Get Bruce (the documentary about comedy writer Bruce Vilanch) where Paul Reiser confesses, "There isn't a comic in the world who wouldn't trade the ability to get a laugh with the ability to kick the shit out of somebody." Such honesty tells us a lot?even more than Forman's plain-faced foray into the wrestlemania phase of Kaufman's career. Kaufman epitomized showbiz contempt. (Is it something in the Long Island water?) But this movie sells the lie that Hollywood wants to believe about itself: that the public?the world?deserves every angry, disaffected performer's scorn. Not even Howard Stern's Private Parts tried that one. Just look at the old, pathetic Taxi stars in their cameo appearances?Carol Kane, Marilu Henner, Judd Hirsch and Jeff Conaway grabbing their only big-screen work, a brotherhood of unemployables. (Leaving Tony Danza with the self-respect not to join this funereal madhouse.)
Praising this film?or Kaufman?becomes a way of justifying the inanities of today's show business. It used to be that hustlers pretended to rip the lid off showbiz. Now they just offer postmodern permissiveness. If Kaufman deserved any grand summation it's as a zeitgeist comic thug who brazened the audience with his own bad taste. But even that claim must deal with one fact: Kaufman wasn't funny! Somehow our culture has lost the confidence to say that. What's next, Chris Rock as Savonarola?
Not exactly a rip of Richard Pryor's classic 1976 album Bicentennial Nigger, Robin Williams' Bicentennial Man is just a mistitled, unintelligent epic on immortality. Williams plays the robot Andrew, whose warranty covers two centuries?including the winning of the frequently re-inherited heart of the same (emotionally retarded) young woman. Williams doesn't offer a white version of Pryor's Everyman (his Mudbone, like Shine and Dolemite, are cultural figures of regeneration and perseverance; comically useful, they respond to people, politics and fate). Williams does something less comically sharp: he's playing Methuselah as Pinocchio. So the reminiscent title is just a generic brand?stealing, then suppressing, Pryor's social critique.
Moviegoers today may not even know what they're missing. Their naivete will be satisfied with a plot that distills almost every other Williams vehicle?especially high-minded ones like What Dreams May Come and Being Human. Williams' maudlin approach is just as valid as Forman and Karaszewski and Alexander's cynicism. Certainly it's more humane. Andrews' speeches on behalf of decrepitude, choice and equality sound, probably intentionally, like liberal positions on homosexual marriage?which might have made a more interesting thematic analogy. After all, humanity isn't a right to be argued in court. However, the privileges accorded marriage are politically negotiable. But logic isn't Williams' (or Kaufman's) interest. In his appeal to the audience's sentimentality Williams has become as ruthless as Kaufman.
It's Williams' recurrent view of man conquering death that makes Bicentennial Man a pixilated equivalent to the foolish "serious" thinking in Man on the Moon. Asimov's nutty notion of a robot that longs to be human isn't a profound analogy for man's ultimate wish. It simply stumbles into confusion about how we relate to technology. And it's way behind Toy Story 2's view of how technology "feels" about us. Williams had gotten close to that in another misconceived project, Barry Levinson's Toys. But there, too, the comic star failed to clarify/rectify his sentiments. Cuteness smothered everything. Williams had worked out his longevity and love obsession in Hook, but Bicentennial Man, despite its futuristic design potential (and a courthouse scene that looks modeled on The Phantom Menace), doesn't have a director who can visualize the emotional states of his character.
Director Chris Columbus has become the best interior decorator in Hollywood. From Home Alone to Stepmom, but especially with the ornate foyers and vestibules seen here?wide, spacious, with Tiffany-style stained glass facades?Columbus features the best bourgeois interiors in modern movies. Yet he isn't so adept with knickknacks that he capitalizes on the dirty mirth in Bicentennial Man's eventual dildo joke (it's not a children's movie). Maybe Columbus never saw Barbarella or Demon Seed, but given his taste in furnishings, he sounds like the right man to do the music video for a rerelease of Bryan Ferry's great "In Every Dream Home a Heartache."
The richest movie year of the decade bursts the bounds of a 10-best list. But because insanity persists in film circles, I feel?for the first time?it's best to counter with the 10 most destructive movies of 1999. If any of these are on your personal best list, trade moviegoing for book reviewing. There might be a New York Times job waiting for you. In order of odiousness:
American Beauty?Death as redemption, glossiness as art. Phony from the get-go.
Liberty Heights?"Baltimore, man, it's hard just to live," sang Nina Simone. She must have foreseen Barry Levinson's antiblack Semitism.
Fight Club?Anticonsumerism is not anti-capitalism. A (brief) fad, not a philosophy.
Magnolia?They call Altman a cynic. Who wouldn't be, with imitators like P.T. Anderson?
Never Been Kissed?Drew Barrymore overdraws on charm. Maybe the stupidest teen flick.
Cradle Will Rock?Tim Robbins' smug lefty bazaar. And interminable.
The Insider?Big media self-righteousness. Also interminable.
American Movie?The Pokemon of documentaries.
The Talented Mr. Ripley?Campy greed, campy murder and B-list acting by an A-list cast.
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