They've sent in the clone.
That's the strange vibration that buzzes outward from "Man on the Moon," Jim Carrey's weird re-creation of comedian Andy Kaufman in director Milos Forman's version of the Kaufman life. And that's about all.
For Kaufman's sense of alienness, his otherworldly aura defies even the creator of "Amadeus" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," other stories of strangeness. Instead, this is a document of observation, not interpretation. Kaufman is simply there, unpenetrable, unknowable, a black hole unto himself that sucks everything in and remains obdurately itself.
Perhaps Forman is wise enough to know that some objects are best contemplated from afar. So what the film does brilliantly is re-create the sense of Kaufman's presence, his demon-eyed, subversive, twisted sense of "humor" (much of it wasn't very funny), his cast-iron nerve as he found reactions in places no other comic would dare to go. One place he never went: to the traditional. He hated "jokes"; he didn't do "punch lines."
His shtick instead was to represent a kind of sprite of the uncomfortable; he aimed not for laughter, which meant little to him, but for the nervous titter, which signified something more disturbing--that odd unease the audience feels when the boundaries between the artificial and the authentic become confused, and it isn't sure whether to laugh or get the hell out of there before the punches start flying. Kaufman loved that. For him (as the movie shows), dying was easy; making people queasy, that was hard.
As to why this strange fellow came to command a national audience and why afterward he lost it, and why still later he reemerged in memory as an icon, Forman has almost no idea and very little interest. Mostly, he just parks his camera and lets Carrey do his Kaufman thing.
All the great Kaufman moments are re-created. That first moment when he exploded onto the national consciousness on "Saturday Night Live" is brilliantly done: Carrey-Kaufman, eyes wild with fear, body seemingly atremble with doubt, standing uneasily atop shivering knees on stage while a cheap record player crackles out the absurd Mighty Mouse theme song, until at last the Mouse himself sings basso contralto--"Here I am to save the day"--and as he lip-syncs the seven magic words, his face transfigures with the beaming radiance of '50s pulp certitude, his eyes light with the power of a thousand beacons of mindless supergoodness, his tremor disappears, his hand rises with dancelike beauty to extend the promise of safety to the millions. Then, in a flash, the line is finished and Kaufman again is the trembly doubter, the lip-chewing, doe-eyed loser. It's astonishing to see it again, so exactly reconstructed.
I'm not sure if this qualifies as acting. It's some other strange form of show business, as unclassifiable as was Kaufman's original thing. Carrey simply becomes Kaufman. Part of it is subtle makeup, which alters his hair; part of it is his physical dexterity in freeing his pupils from the constriction of his eyeballs so that they float, isolated, as a yolk in white, even as they shrink to fill with fear or engorge to fill with awe; part of it is the way his body so smoothly replicates Kaufman's reptilian dancer's grace; part of it is his mastery of all the Kaufman voices. But all that's only physical: The rest is metaphysical, some sort of transubstantiation in which he so totally becomes the object of his impersonation that it's not an impersonation anymore, it's a replication.
The movie is basically structured along the lines of any bio, but it's hardly interested in private life. Early on, on Long Island, young Andy would much rather perform for the wall of his bedroom than for civilization, and his dad (Gerry Becker) encourages him to seek an audience. We cut to late teenage Andy (Carrey) on stage at an improv joint, and that's it for childhood influences.
So uninterested in private life is the film that Kaufman's onetime wrestling opponent and later girlfriend Lynne Margulies (Courtney Love) is the most insubstantial character in the film. She's just sort of a hanger-on, who coos googily-eyed over Kaufman, but seems to have no impact on his life or the film. When Courtney Love makes no impression, there's some weird mojo going on!
The movie invests more of its time in the relationship between Kaufman and his buddy and co-writer Bob Zmuda (Paul Giamatti) than in ostensible girlfriend Margulies, and it treats their custodianship of their fictitious and tiring alter-ego character Tony Clifton with annoying reverence. But what Forman really loves is inside stuff: careers, agents, creative decisions, the whole culture of celebrity and stardom. He treats all this as if it matters.
Danny DeVito appears as George Shapiro, the agent whose sponsorship got Andy out of coffeehouses and into the big time. George fancied that he got it, that Andy represented a certain kind of way-out-there hipness, and convinced others, such as Lorne Michaels of "Saturday Night Live" and the producers of "Taxi," where, to the fury of the professionals of the cast (they appear gamely as their younger selves), his "foreign man" became the most popular thing on the show, even as Andy grew into more of a prima donna and into utter contempt for foreign man.
Somehow, this is less a story than a series of exhibits. It re-creates but never enters, even in Kaufman's strange twilight, beating up women in a wrestling ring and finally getting beaten up by a male wrestler (Jerry Lawler, playing himself as what wrestler wouldn't?) and then being further deconstructed on the David Letterman show, when Lawler smacked him in the face. But the film maintains stoutly that these strange events--they were unsettling, even grotesque when seen originally--were put-ons, part of Kaufman's need to disturb rather than entertain.
Kaufman died young, of cancer; it was a tragedy, but probably a good career move. This movie is a much better monument to him than a dotage spent in the upper left corner (he never would have been in the center) of "Hollywood Squares." Somehow, even in death, he's not someone who inspires much pity or terror, but only bafflement. He's a man who demanded of the universe that it play his game, and in that strange contest he won, and, as this film signifies, is still winning.
Man on the Moon (118 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for profanity and sexual innuendo.
CAPTION: Shticking with the uncomfortable: Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman and Courtney Love as Lynne Margulies in "Man on the Moon."
CAPTION: Danny DeVito, left, as Andy Kaufman's manager and Jim Carrey as Kaufman.