Review: ‘Jim & Andy,’ When Carrey Became Kaufman


Blurred lines: Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman in “Jim & Andy.” Credit Francois Duhamel/Netflix,VICE Documentary Films

The laughs in the new documentary about Jim Carrey and Andy Kaufman don’t just pop, they also gush. The giggles start with the playful title: “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond — Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton.” It’s an amusing pileup that in its excess hints at the rich weirdness that emerged when Mr. Carrey nearly went off the rails playing Kaufman in the biopic “Man on the Moon.” One of those tidy, fumbled stories of genius, it will be forever supplanted by this movie’s dizzily, fantastically entertaining account of its two strange, twinned and messy geniuses.

Kaufman, who died from lung cancer in 1984, was a standup who hit the mainstream playing Latka Gravas, a mechanic of indeterminate national origin, in the sitcom “Taxi.” That show was a critical favorite, if not a ratings behemoth, and it goosed the big-screen careers of some of its players (Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd). Kaufman wasn’t made for movies, but in live shows as well as on “Saturday Night Live” and on talk shows (David Letterman), he continued to test the limits of his singular absurdist comedy by assuming the guise of innocent fools or spectacularly awful louts. Kaufman is still sometimes referred to as a cult comic, a category that skews reductive decades later.

“Jim & Andy” revisits Kaufman’s tragically abridged story, largely through Mr. Carrey’s experiences playing him. By the time Mr. Carrey signed on to make “Man on the Moon” (1999), he was a major movie star, having appeared in both commercial hits (“Dumb and Dumber”) and critical successes (“The Truman Show”). Physically, he may have seemed a bit off to play Kaufman (too lanky, too crowned with hair), but he took on the role with painstaking if seemingly typical actorly mimicry. Mr. Carrey found the character in big and little ways: in Kaufman’s many voices, his fixed stare and in the walks, stances and gestures he used to play characters or when he was just being (or playing) Andy.


Mr. Carrey as Andy Kaufman. Credit Francois Duhamel/Netflix,VICE Documentary Films

“Jim & Andy” suggests that in finding Kaufman, Mr. Carrey also lost himself, at least for a while (though maybe longer). The story of what happened during the making of “Man of the Moon” has been covered before, including in news articles published around the time of its release. In one, a journalist who visited the set during production noted that Mr. Carrey never broke character even after cut was called. In another account, Mr. DeVito, who played himself in “Man on the Moon,” said Mr. Carrey dove so deeply into his role as Kaufman that “Jim only came to work two days during the filming.” That sure sounds like the final word on the Carrey-Kaufman cinematic convergence.

Directed by Chris Smith, “Jim & Andy” reveals that those earlier reports — which read as if yet another performer had taken the whole Method acting thing a touch too far — hardly get at the strangeness that materialized (and lingers). “So, Jim, how would you start this movie?,” an offscreen Mr. Smith asks Mr. Carrey at the start. Seated in what looks like an anonymous hotel room and wearing a luxurious beard and a leather jacket, Mr. Carrey grunts softly and glances away. And then, looking directly into the camera, he says: “Well, if I had my choice, it wouldn’t start at all. It would already have been.” Mr. Carrey breaks into a small, ambiguous smile. “And it wouldn’t end, either.”

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