Think Christian – May 1, 2018
Looking back on his obsessive portrayal of Andy Kaufman, Jim Carrey realizes he had to lose his life in order to find it.
Growing up awkward in the early 1980s, I loved the offbeat, absurdist comedy of Andy Kaufman. Whether he was lip-syncing the chorus to Mighty Mouse on Saturday Night Live or transgressing professional wrestling on Late Night with David Letterman, Kaufman’s rule-breaking comedy made outcasts cool. I was much less a fan of Jim Carrey … until now, thanks to Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond.
A surprisingly moving deep dive into Carrey’s portrayal of Kaufman in the 1999 biopic Man on the Moon, Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond is troubling, meta, and often magnificent. More about Carrey than Kaufman, the film depicts a gifted artist assaulted by the demons of celebrity and expectation. By the documentary’s end, Carrey seems to experience something of the truth found in Matthew 10: “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”
Directed by Chris Smith and consisting of previously unseen, behind-the-scenes footage, Jim & Andy exposes how Carrey recklessly threw himself into making Man on the Moon as a way of honoring his comic hero. Kaufman was a transformational comedian known for walking a tightrope without a net. Jim & Andy hints at the joyful genius and edgy thirst for danger shared by both artists. The studio refused to allow Carrey to do anything with the raw footage at the time because they were afraid it would “make him look like an a–hole.” It often does. Elegantly spliced against Carrey’s present-day testimonials, the 19-year-old footage reveals an insecure and manic young comedian willing to risk himself and others in his sometimes brilliant but often misguided pursuit of stardom.
To be sure, Carrey’s method acting tramples several ethical boundaries. The worst behavior occurs when he takes on and refuses to leave Kaufman’s rude alter ego: Tony Clifton. An incorrigibly vulgar lounge singer, Clifton was Kaufman’s id. It’s hard not to wince at the footage of Carrey as Clifton verbally abusing crew members, ogling women, vandalizing studio property, and obstinately forcing Man on the Moon’s Oscar-winning director, Milos Forman, to grovel. Things get even meaner when Carrey’s Kaufman relentlessly mocks and taunts professional wrestler Jerry Lawler between takes as the crew tries to recreate iconic gags from Kaufman’s professional wrestling career. Carrey ironically seems not to know or care that, in real life, Lawler and Kaufman were both in on the joke.
There is also cringe-worthy footage of Carrey interacting in character with Kaufman’s surviving family members, including an extended visit with an illegitimate daughter, who is now a grieving adult seeking a vicarious relationship with her deceased father. Hopefully the experience was positive for her, but this could have gone so wrong. At one point in the footage, Danny DeVito—an actor in Man on the Moon and a real-life friend and colleague of Kaufman’s—laments, “This is in such poor taste. I don’t want anything to do with it.”
Jim & Andy is troubling, meta, and often magnificent.
If the footage reveals an artist in crisis, Carrey’s after-the-fact commentary reflects his gradual journey towards emotional and spiritual well-being. A sign-seeker throughout his life, Carrey shares multiple accounts of divine intercession. He tells the story of how, during a period of childhood poverty, a teacher instructed him to pray to the Virgin Mary. The young Carrey prayed for a bike and the next day a bike appeared. While sincere, the theology of Carrey’s spiritual claims certainly warrants critique. The story about writing himself a $10 million check while still a struggling comedian prioritizes gratuitous wealth as the indicator of divine grace. That Carrey’s achievement of this financial benchmark several years later coincided with the death of his beloved father adds pathos to the story. In his mourning, we learn that Carrey slipped the crumpled check into his father’s casket.
But this fame-obsessed, spiritually opportunistic Carrey is not the figure who ultimately emerges from Jim & Andy. Instead, the film reveals an artist’s journey from struggle to chaos to a sort of wisdom. The now-reclusive, fully bearded Carrey observes, “There’s a quiet, gentle seat in the universe that seems to contain everything. That’s where I am. I don’t want anything. That’s the strangest thing to say in a place like America.” When asked if this nirvana-like transformation holds any connection to his experience playing Kaufman, Carrey confides that portraying Andy forced him to reckon with the futility girding his shallow dreams. In spite of having everything he ever wanted, Carrey admits, “I realized that I was back in my problems.” Echoing the gospel, he had to lose what he believed his life should be to find it.
Carrey’s asceticism admittedly drifts somewhere between Franciscan monk and New Age guru. Yet he seems at peace and, if not whole, at least on a journey toward wholeness. Of course, we can’t fully know where Carrey is spiritually, although this remarkable clip from a 2017 charity event suggests an affinity with Christianity. His beliefs may differ from mine, but I’d love to have a conversation with him.
Jim & Andy appropriately concludes with an off-hand reference to the Word made flesh. As he fiddles to remove his mic, the ever-wondering comedian serendipitously injects an incarnational question to the invisible interviewer, a question that powerfully lingers beyond the scope of the documentary. Reflecting on his immersive dive into Kaufman’s persona, Carrey marvels, “I wonder if I could do that with other people. I wonder what would happen if I decided just to be Jesus. Wow, we got into some crazy sh– there, man.”