Where does Jim Carrey end and Andy Kaufman begin?
Let’s give this its full title. Jim And Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring A Very Special Contractually Obligated Mention Of Tony Clifton.
A bit of a mouthful, true, but break it down into its three parts and it tells you nearly everything you need to know about this behind the scenes documentary. It’s about Jim Carrey and his depiction of the comedian Andy Kaufman in the 1999 film, Man On The Moon. The Great Beyond is one of the songs from the soundtrack, by REM: Carrey reveals he regrets never having been in the video. And Tony Clifton was Kaufman’s other comedy creation, a malevolent, downright unpleasant crooner. Hang on. Kaufman’s other creation? Well, maybe ……
But, before you watch this, watch Milos Forman’s Man On The Moon (1999) which starred Carrey as Kaufman, the comedian and comic actor familiar to most people as Latka in TV’s Taxi. That doesn’t mean that the documentary is without interest if you don’t, but you’ll get a whole lot more out of it if you do, whether you’re new to the film or simply haven’t seen it for a while. The two movies are soulmates.
In his day, Kaufman in his day broke boundaries, never a comfortable experience for audiences and arbiters of public taste. In fact, one of his specialities was that feeling of discomfort, the one that goes with never knowing if what you’re watching and hearing is for real or not. With Kaufman, you could never tell. About half way through the doc, we learn that Universal Studios would never allow the behind the scenes footage to be released because, as Carrey explains to the omni-present Bob Zmuda, Kaufman’s partner in comedy, they “didn’t want people to think that Jim’s an a**hole.” Yet, right towards the end of the film, the second half of this conversation pops up – and Zmuda conspicuously doesn’t like somebody playing him at his own game!
The film is constructed around that archive footage, interspersed with to-camera interviews with Carrey himself. He talks about his past and reflects on the similarities between him and Kaufman: he talks about playing the part and some considering his own views on life today. It gets increasingly introspective as the film goes on. But the fascination lies in the footage from the film set, where we see Carrey staying in character long after “cut” has been yelled. In fact, from what we see and what he says, he never escapes the character at all. He disappears inside the part and director Forman actually calls him Andy to his face all the time – but remember, of course, he’s not just playing Kaufman. He’s playing Kaufman playing Tony Clifton as well, complete with arriving by car with a bag over his head. It’s only when shooting has wrapped that Carrey reverts to himself: he’s escaped into the role but, once it’s over, he says goodbye and returns to his life – and has to work himself out all over again. And he says he doesn’t miss Andy at all.
Documentaries on the making of a film can easily turn into a back slapping fest – everybody loves everybody else and it’s unconvincing puff. This isn’t like that. It makes you want to watch the original movie again, if only to see if you can detect some of the shenanigans that went on. It celebrates the film as well, simply by showing scenes that highlight the quality of Carrey’s performance and the movie’s capacity to shock, amuse and impress. More than anything, though, it makes you appreciate that we lost Kaufman too early. That he was ahead of his time with a humour that wouldn’t have been out of place today – and would have made him a massive favourite. Although he’d still have probably found something different to make us squirm all over again. Was he a genius? If not, he came perilously close.
Jim And Andy: The Great Beyond is out now on Netflix.