RELEASE DATE: November 17, 2017 (Netflix)
DIRECTOR: Chris Smith
MPAA RATING: NR
RUNTIME: 94 minutes
Jim Carrey claims that he felt like he was almost channeling the spirit of Andy Kaufman. It’s one of the first things he says in the new interviews filmed for Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (a.k.a. Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton, a.k.a. how I can easily up my word count for this review), a fascinating but sparse documentary that combines talking-head interviews with a plethora of archival footage.
During the filming of the 1999 biopic Man on the Moon, Carrey insisted that Kaufman’s girlfriend, photographer Lynne Margulies, shoot the production in place of a generic press team. Now, we see the footage. The clips themselves are revelatory and thrilling. Carrey, in a desperate bid to embody his role, remains in character at all times. He is Andy, except for when he is dressed up as Tony Clifton. They do not know each other, and of course they do not know Jim.
Much is made of the constant bewilderment of the cast and crew. Some who worked with Kaufman comment that the behavioral resemblance is uncanny, and there are times when the actor’s conviction is downright startling. But Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond is more than an exhibition of two-decade-old videos; it’s a retrospective on the performance. Carrey’s contemporary comments are interspersed with these moments and then intercut with relevant scenes from the movie itself.
As the singular dissection that the title promises, the documentary feels too scattershot and generalized to present a singular vision. Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond has Carrey trace a long history of his life and career, a sweeping retelling of the comedian’s path from an impressionist to a global star. Director Chris Smith indulges long swaths of these memories throughout the first half of the film. This creates an odd juxtaposition.
The footage shot on the set of Man on the Moon is laser focused to each moment, another anecdote from production captured in real time, encapsulating a crisis or miracle from the project. Then, we cut to the original material. Carrey slinks back in his chair, wanders through meandering, philosophical diversions, and the film hampers us down with old interviews on Oprah or a variety of news clippings.
What ends up happening is that Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond becomes two different movies. Neither are bad, but one is clearly better. With a personality like Jim Carrey, there’s inherent interest in hearing him discuss his process and method and the steps he took to create the performance. And with an enigmatic film like Man on the Moon, about someone whose life and work defies all classification, we want to know more about its making in the same way that we want to know more about its subject. It’s exploration on a more thorough level.
As a result, the positioning of the documentary as the sole unveiling of all this material, shot 20 years ago and only now allowed “out of the vault,” serves to further the divide. This heightens the difference between showing and telling. We watch a confrontational moment on set between Carrey and Jerry Lawler in 1999, and then Carrey in 2017 comments on it. To speak further on it serves no greater purpose.
Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond serves its two ripe premises short, making an abbreviated version of its most enticing concepts. If anyone could prove the pleasures of a weird, unexplained world, it would be Andy Kaufman – a man who was so natural in practicing the off-kilter that some still refuse to believe he is dead and that he’s somehow been pranking us for 33 years.
Margulies’ footage gives us a glimpse into a performance that’s on a similar edge of controlled absurdity, and we’re spellbound and shocked. But then Smith brings in the other movie, and tries to explain it all away.