Documentary Review — “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond,” on Netflix

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I was thinking, not long ago, that maybe it’s time we re-examined the life and work of Jim Carrey. And then Netflix releases this documentary which starts that process in earnest.

“Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond” is a fascinating, deep “behind the scenes” of the making of “Man on the Moon,” Carrey’s Golden Globe-winning impersonation/interpretation of the famous conceptual comic Andy Kaufman, an odd and “out there” funnyman who was subject of the R.E.M. song that became this movie’s title.

It’s built around absurdly unfettered access Carrey gave a video crew as he utterly immersed himself in Andy Kaufman, the only comic stranger than himself, playing the “Taxi” and “Saturday Night Live” star who became comedy’s greatest hoaxer. Carrey released this long-vaulted footage and then sat for a revealing, philosophical interview with filmmaker Chris Smith, who created a film out of it all.

So not only do we see Carrey become Kaufman, taking on his act, his mannerisms and his comedy credo — “The show doesn’t end when the director yells ‘cut.'” We also see him get into semi-real tussles with wrestler Jerry Lawler, who was playing himself in a movie about his fake feud with Kaufman. We see Carrey channeling Kaufman’s stoop-shouldered equal-opportunity offender lounge act alter ego, Tony Clifton. The film’s full-title includes “Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton.”

 

We hear Carrey psychoanalyze Kaufman, revealing much about himself –kindred comic spirits trying to “cross that line” in sometimes similar ways — in the process.

There’s Jim on set, insisting that befuddled Oscar-winning director Milos Forman (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Amadeus”) “Call me ANDY,” listening to the music of rock changeling David Bowie in the makeup chair, bringing production crew and family to tears off camera on the set. He’s seen blurring the lines between art and reality every day as he interacted with those who worked with, knew or were related to Kaufman, whose death of lung cancer in 1984 was regarded, by many, as just another hoax by a guy whose comedy had morphed into increasingly bizarre stunts, to which faking his own death would simply seem like a curtain call.

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“I have a Hyde inside who shows up when people are watching,” Carrey admits, his version of the mania to perform that Kaufman took to other extremes. Of Kaufman, he adds, “I know him as well as I can know him.”

Both had “please my dad” issues, both took things too far in comic “guest appearances” too often to count. The more-malleable, broader talents of Carrey made him the world’s biggest movie star, for a while. Kaufman became a cult figure who lives on in the many TV appearances he squeezed into a short career that seemed to be spiraling downward at the time of his death.

Bill Zehme, author of the definitive Kaufman biography “Lost in the Funhouse,” confirmed what even a haphazard reading of Kaufman’s career reveals. His act — lip-syncing and doing this dopey dance to novelty records, slinging that “the little foreign man” voice and managing a killer Elvis impersonation — was basically the same from high school up until the wrestling stuff, trying to become the most “hated” comic/wrestler/man in America took over. “Brilliant” but “limited” is a fair assessment.

What Carrey adds to our understanding of the man is his simpatico sense that you either become your creation and go to your grave as someone nobody really knows, or you move on from that and find ways of expressing someone closer to who you really are, leaving that “character” or persona you’ve created for public consumption behind.

Kaufman was the former. Carrey plainly has become the latter. I’ve interviewed Carrey (and for that matter, Zehme) and the bearded, thoughtful fellow who talks about his life, Andy Kaufman and the films he was making at around this time in this documentary is one far more recognizable than the manic funnyman who has made every talk show or awards show appearance memorable, wacky and out there.

Even though he’s been less active and spacier (still hilarious) in recent years, Carrey gave half a dozen enduring screen performances — in “The Truman Show,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Man on the Moon,” “The Cable Guy,” “Bruce Almighty,” “I Love You Phillips Morris” — that transcended the fellow who made “Alll-righty then!” a catch-phrase that paid.

It’s time we remembered that. And maybe it’s time somebody gave him another film role that underlined it.

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MPAA Rating: profanity, violence

Cast: Jim Carrey, Andy Kaufman, Danny DeVito, Bob Zmuda, Milos Foreman

Credits: Directed by Chris Smith. A Netflix release.

Running time: 1:34

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