AFI Fest 2017: Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond: Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton, by David Bax
“I decided for the next few days to talk telepathically to people.” Jim Carrey, professional comedian, says this early in Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton, the new documentary from Chris Smith (American Movie). He’s talking about his preparations to play Andy Kaufman in Milos Forman’s Man on the Moon and, despite the fact that both Carrey and Kaufman are known for making people laugh, he’s not trying to be funny with that ridiculous statement. That’s the problem with Jim & Andy. Instead of focusing on the comedic and artistic legacies of the two men, it focuses on how both show signs of mental instability. The difference is that Kaufman didn’t live long enough to become long-windedly psuedo-philosophical about it.
Carrey enlisted Lynne Margulies and Bob Zmuda to document his time on Forman’s set, during which he remained entirely in character as Kaufman (or as Tony Clifton). Smith takes that footage, along with other clips from Kaufman’s and Carrey’s careers, and pairs it all up with a new interview with Carrey. And, to the misfortune of the viewer, Carrey is the only person interviewed in the present day, which accounts for the movie quickly disappearing up its own ass and staying there. Interviews with others involved in making the film or with people who knew Andy would provide perspective and context, even the tiniest bit of which would risk shattering Carrey’s transparent smugness.
Kaufman was an enigmatic artist; the enigma was, in fact, crucial to the art. So anyone who talks about him as if they fully understand him, which Carrey does ad nauseum, comes off as risibly conceited. His constant assertions about what Andy would or would not have done or how he would have felt are nothing more than thin intellectual misdirections designed to make Carrey sound more knowledgeable than he is. It’s like when someone says that literally anything other than jazz is “like jazz.”
It’s no surprise, then, that Smith has better luck in the sections that have nothing to do with Kaufman. While Carrey talks unselfconsciously about his career and his ambition, Smith uses clips from his movies, from The Mask to The Truman Show to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, to create, in essence, a character arc. It’s a portrait of an actor as auteur as well as a poignant depiction of how a major star can come to define himself by his famous roles in much the same way audiences do.
But then we’re yanked right back into Jim & Andy’s default mode of fawning over Carrey’s commitment. Given recent stories of despicable behavior by the likes of Jared Leto, it’s difficult to see this as anything other than further proof that, more often than not, method acting just means being a dick. The most noticeable examples come when Carrey is in Tony Clifton mode, bidding a woman farewell by saying, “Come back in one piece. Or a two-piece,” and forcing crew members to carry him to the make-up chair because he’s “drunk.” More insidious and disturbing, though, are the moments in which we see him interacting, as Andy, with Kaufman’s real-life family members. Present-day Carrey insists this was beautiful and therapeutic but, since Smith has robbed us of any other points of view, we are left with either taking his word for it or being gobsmacked by the callous goulishness of it all.
After that, you’d think it would be hard to still be outraged. But then Carrey goes so far as to romanticize Kaufman’s death from lung cancer as some sort of grand, graceful exit. How on earth could Smith not want to puncture this hubris? The closest he comes is including Margulies’ and Zmuda’s behind the scenes interview with wrestler Jerry Lawler, whom Carrey-as-Andy terrorized on set. Lawler reminds them repeatedly that, in real life, Kaufman was a kind man whom he considered a friend. But Smith never asks Carrey to explain how that account aligns with his self-assured grasp on the man’s life and personality. Because, of course, if Carrey were to examine his idea of Kaufman, he’d also have to examine his own identity. In both cases, he prefers the myth. When Carrey compares Kaufman, in a single breath, to both Jesus Christ and the Beat poets, he may actually be talking about himself. The most troubling part is, Jim & Andy appears to agree with him.