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It was absurd, it was completely absurd, but somehow it worked.
It’s January 2017 and Jim Carrey is sat in the living room of his Los Angeles home directing a steady and immediately transfixing gaze into the camera lens before him. For the first time in nearly twenty years he is reflecting on the moment he took the role of Andy Kaufman for the 1999 film biopic on the cult comedian’s life and career Man on the Moon. The elusive expression in his glinting eyes and across his lined and bearded face is suspended somewhere between absolute candour and comic caprice. Carrey describes how he was looking out over the evening ocean on Malibu beach when the sudden breaking of the water’s surface by a passing school of dolphins convinced him that the late Kaufman had given him a telepathic sign. ‘I decided from then, for the next few days to speak telepathically to people,’ he continues, ‘That’s the moment when Andy Kaufman showed up, tapped me on the shoulder and said: Sit down, I’ll be doing my movie.’
Netflix’s documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond reveals Carrey’s extraordinary journey into the method acting process for the film that would eventually see him win a Golden Globe in 2000. Based on hours of recovered behind-the-scenes footage from the making of Man on the Moon, the documentary follows Carrey from his trailer to the film set and everywhere in between over the four-month shoot. Throughout this time he committed himself to never breaking character as Kaufman, the comedian who pioneered his own unique and hugely influential brand of anti-comedy in the clubs and theatres of New York during the 1970s.
Kaufman in fact had famously refused to call himself a comedian at all in these years, stating that ‘I am not a comic, I have never told a joke. The comedian’s promise is that he will go out there and make you laugh with him. My only promise is that I will try to entertain you as best I can.’ The resolute commitment to character was central to Kaufman’s evolving experimental comedic form. The array of oddballs and eccentrics he created and embodied on stage proved so entertaining precisely because of their inability to pull off the perfect routine, parading their fluffed punch-lines, crude jibes and terrible impersonations before ever growing audiences. Kaufman’s career was however dramatically cut short by his death from lung cancer at the age of thirty-five in 1984.
Kaufman perpetually clouded the division between reality and fiction in his performances, delighting in the confusion he created for the audience as to where his characters ended and the real Andy began. It was Carrey’s deep personal admiration for the comedian and his art that inspired him to go method for Man on the Moon. The subsequent documentary material for Jim & Andy is largely drawn from the hand-held camera footage captured of Carrey as he relentlessly inhabits Kaufman and his absurd cast of characters to the increasing consternation of the film crew and fellow actors around him.
What makes the documentary such a fascinating, moving and at times even unbearable experience to watch is this unyielding dedication of the actor to his subject. From trailer to set each day we watch Carrey push the limits of his craft and the bounds of acceptable social behaviour to breaking point. Director Milos Forman threatened to quit production after only two weeks in his frustration, unsuccessfully pleading with Carrey at one point could he talk to ‘Jim’ instead of ‘Andy’ when giving scene directions. When playing Kaufman’s cantankerous washed-up showman Tony Clifton, Carrey repeatedly goads and verbally abuses anyone who crosses his path. At one point he even provokes a professional wrestler to physically attack him before shooting their scene together.
Most surreal and strangely moving of all are the moments when Kaufman’s family visit the set and are introduced to Carrey as Andy. The genuinely cathartic experience resulting from these meetings between the family and the actor so faithfully embodying their late son are as bizarre as they are beautiful. It this continuous shifting between the actual and the absurd that makes Jim & Andy such a unique and compelling watch, blurring the boundaries of art and life in a way that encapsulates the practice of method acting itself.