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Carrey fails to untangle mystery of Kaufman
By RANDALL KING - Winnipeg Sun
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Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman

Comic/performance artist Andy Kaufman described himself as a "song-and-dance man" but that was just a song and dance. In his career as an entertainer, Kaufman was primarily interested in entertaining himself.

This film biography of Kaufman comes from director Milos Forman and writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the team who made a mad martyr out of a porn kingpin in The People Vs. Larry Flynt.

The main similarity between Flynt and Kaufman is that they were men who made a career out of pushing the boundaries of "entertainment" while inviting -- even soliciting -- the disapproval of the general public. They're both subversives in sheep's clothing.

Star Jim Carrey has the impossible job of finding the real Andy Kaufman. As we see, Kaufman was the ultimate put-on artist, hiding his true nature under layers of irony.

We learn this through George Shapiro (Danny De Vito), the man who would be Kaufman's agent. He watches in a comedy club audience as Kaufman bravely courts disaster doing his Foreign Man routine, a characterization of the world's worst impersonator, ending with a stunningly accomplished Elvis imitation. Impressed, Shapiro signs Kaufman, only to find himself contending with a mercurial talent who would just as soon insult an audience as make them laugh.

Shapiro gets an idea of the limits Kaufman transgresses when he catches the act of his alter-ego Tony Clifton, an outrageous, insulting, apparently talentless Vegas lounge singer. Clifton baits his audience and pours a drink over the head of a hapless shmuck, who turns out to be Kaufman's confederate/co-writer Bob Zmuda (Paul Giamatti).

"You might be a genius," Shapiro tells Kaufman. He gets Andy a lucrative gig playing Latka Gravas on the TV series Taxi. But Kaufman views the show's pop standards with contempt. So, as a sideline, he parlays his fetish for wrestling with women (we see him indulge in this pastime in a brothel) into a full-blown act as Andy Kaufman: "Inter-Gender wrestling champion."

Carrey presents a fascinating duality. Alternating between the vile Tony Clifton, the lovable Latka and the obnoxious wrestler, Kaufman seems to want to be loved and despised at the same time. He carries that tendency into his private life when he meets the woman who would be his girlfriend Lynn Marguiles (Courtney Love), and comes close to losing her when an elaborate marriage proposal turns out to be just another hoax. By the time he tells his best friends that he has been diagnosed with a rare form of lung cancer, no one seems to know whether to take him seriously.

Clearly, the European Forman enjoys Kaufman's American penchant for self-indulgence. But Kaufman eludes him, and Carrey, who lived in character for months, still doesn't get any closer to Kaufman than Kaufman got to Elvis.

Forman ends it all with a hint that Kaufman may still be with us, a narrative cop-out akin to the it-was-all-a-dream denouement.

If he is alive, Andy Kaufman may be the only one in the theatre laughing.

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