Jim Carrey wears a leather jacket and a sea captain’s beard.
“I’ve stepped through the door,” he says to the camera.
He is older now. The devil is gone from his face, which is now creased by calm and melancholy. In the new documentary "Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond" — about his embodiment of absurdist entertainer Andy Kaufman in the 1999 movie "Man on the Moon" — the former superstar of slapstick wants to share something other than a cartoonish yawp or his talking buttocks.
“The door is the realization that this — us — is Seaside,” Carrey continues. “It’s the dome. This is the dome. This isn’t real. You know? This is a story.”
Where to begin. Seaside, Fla., was the filming location for the fake town in "The Truman Show," a 1998 movie in which Carrey played a man who slowly discovers that he's the unwitting star of a television program. Carrey then made his Kaufman biopic, "Man on the Moon," which dramatized the late comedian's quest to challenge audiences with a bewildered interrogation of reality itself. These two films are the tent poles of the documentary, which materialized on Netflix two weeks ago. They are also the keys to the artistry and celebrity of Jim Carrey, who lately seems to be auditioning for the role of a 21st-century philosopher we didn't know we needed — one who applies the lessons of fame to a society drowning in fiction, distraction, advertisement and self-imaging.
“Jim Carrey was a great character, and I was lucky to get the part,” he told Jimmy Kimmel in May, after basking impassively in riotous applause from his talk-show audience. “But I don’t think of that as me anymore.”
“It’s all about identity,” he told the Associated Press at the Venice Film Festival in September, in a soft, yoga-teacher voice. “Because that’s all there is.”
“I don’t believe that you exist,” he told a flummoxed E! News correspondent at New York Fashion Week days later. “There is no me. . . . There are clusters of tetrahedrons moving around together. . . . We don’t matter.”
So why bother to put on a suit and show up for a red carpet? Then again, why not bother?
Carrey, 55, declined an interview request from The Washington Post around that time. We wanted to talk to him about the various projects that he’s working on, and about the Sartre-like turn he’s taken. (Or is it Nietzsche? Or something more like Hare Krishna?)
“At this time Jim Carrey is unavailable,” his publicist said, and maybe she meant that Jim Carrey no longer existed, in the way that Andy Kaufman never seemed to exist.
Kaufman “was about breaking that wall, and not stopping when the cameras stopped,” Carrey says in the Netflix documentary. He wanted “to turn reality on its head. To completely blur the lines.”
Is Jim Carrey attempting to do that now, in a kind of meta-performance with a 20-year arc?
Has Jim Carrey merely attained a personal nirvana that he wants to share?
Or is Jim Carrey . . . unwell?
According to Carrey, America gave him everything — fame, wealth, respect — in exchange for his very identity. It's a classic Hollywood story, in that way. Another documentary on Netflix, "Gaga: Five Foot Two," shows Lady Gaga trying to figure out why, with all the adoration, she feels like the loneliest person in the world.
“I go from everyone touching me all day, and talking at me all day, to total silence,” she says, in tears. “And all these people will leave, and I’ll be alone.”
Fame killed Judy and Marilyn, we’re told, but maybe that’s because they didn’t have the idea (or the option) to make a movie about their own struggle. Carrey, in the documentary, is seemingly past this struggle, which took place during and immediately after the filming of “Man on the Moon” two decades ago. Carrey, after winning the role of Kaufman, surrendered himself to the spirit of the long-dead entertainer, and allowed himself to be filmed behind the scenes.
“Andy Kaufman showed up, tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Sit down, I’ll be doing my movie,’ ” Carrey says. “What happened afterwards was out of my control.”
The footage, which rested untouched in Carrey’s office until now, is extraordinary. Carrey stayed in character on set, either as Kaufman or as Kaufman’s cantankerous lounge-lizard character Tony Clifton. Director Milos Forman pleaded at first with his possessed star — but eventually understood that he had to address Carrey as “Andy” to get anything from him. Figures in Andy’s life returned to play themselves, and Carrey’s off-camera antics reanimated long-ago feuds and affections. The most startling sequence in the documentary involves wrestler Jerry Lawler, who in 1982 “fought” Kaufman in Memphis until the latter had to be taken away on a stretcher. It was a gag, apparently, but it was hard to tell fact from fakery.
Carrey, playing Kaufman a full 16 years later, goaded Lawler for days between takes — until Lawler really went after him. Carrey, seemingly injured, was carted away on a real stretcher, by a real ambulance, leaving both cast and crew flummoxed about where the film ended and reality began, and vice versa.
The bearded Carrey of today, addressing the camera, admits that he had doubts about going too far — an admission that Kaufman himself never would’ve made. This moment of self-doubt is important, because Carrey is the documentary’s only contemporaneous interviewee. Forman, Lawler, co-star Danny DeVito, and Kaufman confidant Bob Zmuda appear only in the behind-the-scenes footage from years ago. Though their exasperation is clear, Carrey alone narrates this recollection, without much probing from documentarian Chris Smith. Carrey is also a full 20 years older than Kaufman was at the time of his 1984 death, and perhaps he’s using a ghost to reclaim his prime.
“At some point in your life,” Carrey says, “you have to go: ‘I don’t care what it looks like. I’ve found the hole in the psyche and I’m going through and I’m going to face the abyss of not knowing whether that’s going to be okay with everybody.’ ”
According to Carrey, he confronted the abyss after he finished “Man on the Moon,” sloughed off the Kaufman vibe — and discovered that he didn’t know who he was anymore.
The intervening years have had an additional abyss or two. After "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" — a brain-twister of a romantic comedy from 2004 that received critical acclaim like no other Carrey film — he made a string of forgettable movies. He took up arms in the anti-vaccine crusade; some fans turned on him. There was depression, and Prozac. His ex-girlfriend died in 2015 of a drug overdose, and her family is now suing him for wrongful death ("I will not tolerate this heartless attempt to exploit me or the woman I loved," Carrey said in a statement last year.).
None of these events are covered in "Jim and Andy," because the film is not a document of his life. It is a document about the idea of Jim Carrey, as told by the man who's saddled with that idea.
“ ‘Truman Show’ really became a prophecy for me,” Carrey says. “It is constantly reaffirming itself as a teaching, almost, as a real representation of what I’ve gone through in my career — and what everybody goes through when they create themselves, you know, to be popular or to be successful.”
He goes on: “It’s not just show business. It’s Wall Street. It’s anywhere. You go to the office and you put a monkey suit on, and you act a certain way and you say a certain thing, and you lie through your teeth sometimes. And you do whatever you need to do to look like a winner.”
Whether or not Jim Carrey is trying, with a Kaufmanesque flourish, to reclaim some of the success and fame that he’s lost over the years, he has a point. It is here, pairing the prophecy of “The Truman Show” with the resurrection of “Man on the Moon,” that Carrey’s message descends from the realm of celebrity into the life of the viewer. We’re all acting, to a degree. We exaggerate our abilities, we craft a careful image on social media, we allow what others think to infect our behavior in large and small ways.
These days we are all Truman — and sometimes it takes an Andy to point that out.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Seaside as the name of the fake town in "The Truman Show." This version has been updated.