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‘Man on the Moon’ Defined Jim Carrey’s Career — and Also Shattered It

The latest installment of Misleading Men, the series where we look back at actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment

In the late 1990s, Jim Carrey was on a hot streak rarely seen in Hollywood. Over the course of about four years, he’d appeared in six movies that each grossed more than $100 million and won a Golden Globe for The Truman Show. He was about to start filming How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which would become the biggest hit of his career. Yet it’s possible that the film that best defined him was also his biggest bomb of that period.

Some stars prefer to forget their failures, but in a fascinating new Netflix documentary, Carrey talks openly about why that movie—the Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon—still means so much to him. Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond also makes a pretty compelling case for the greatness of Man on the Moon — as well as illustrates how it permanently shifted Carrey’s relationship with his own fame.

Carrey has always been a ham. Growing up in Ontario in the 1960s, he began developing a taste for impressions, which he discusses in Jim & Andy, speaking directly to the camera as director Chris Smith (American Movie) cuts to old television footage of a young Jim on stage. Carrey gets emotional talking about his father, Percy, an accountant who’d aspired to a musical career, but was too nervous to pursue it because he was raising Jim and his siblings. “As time wore on, [the day job] wore him down,” Carrey says in Jim & Andy, adding sadly, “He got a little bit bitter.” Even more painful for Percy, he was fired when he was 51, forcing his family to become homeless for a time. That memory still haunts Carrey. “I learned that you can fail at what you don’t love,” he says, “so you might as well do what you love. There’s really no choice to be made.”

Eventually, Carrey began developing a stand-up act based on boundless energy and impeccably mimicry, serving as Rodney Dangerfield’s opener. In 1983, he made his first appearance on The Tonight Show, sauntering on stage and doing an Elvis Presley impression.

It was a good impression — with all the requisite snarling lip and gyrating hips — but it also felt like a performance of a performance, as if Carrey wanted the audience to understand that he knew he was doing a showbiz bit.

This sort of anti-comedy was very much the sort of thing that another, far more established comic of the time was famous for: Andy Kaufman. For Kaufman, a surreal stand-up who dipped his toe in the mainstream thanks to Saturday Night Live and Taxi, the deconstruction of entertainment was the point. The niceties and formalities of being a performer were stripped away — Kaufman would topple the invisible boundary between entertainer and audience, actively challenging the viewer. He’d spend an entire show reading aloud from The Great Gatsby. He’d play a Mighty Mouse record and then lip-synch along to the song. From his hero Kaufman, Carrey learned to attack.

Carrey’s first stardom came on In Living Color, where his exaggerated, antagonistic characters, like Fire Marshall Bill, showed off his gift for rubber-faced creations who were almost inhuman. That odd plasticity paved the way for a film career, first with 1994’s Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and then The Mask, which allowed Carrey to explore the Jekyll/Hyde dichotomy of his onscreen persona. “I have a Hyde inside me that shows up when there are people watching, you know, when there’s a thousand people with their eyes on me,” Carrey says in Jim & Andy, recalling his early days as a manic stand-up. “And [when] they hand me a microphone, Jim goes away, and Hyde comes out. But it’s a good Hyde — it’s not a hateful Hyde. It’s a loving Hyde that just wants everybody to party and have a good time. But it’s a Hyde, nonetheless, and I feel sometimes afterwards like, ‘Damn, I lost control again — to him.’”

The lowbrow shenanigans continued with that December’s Dumb and Dumber, giving him three of the year’s highest-grossing films, an incredible achievement. Still, critics couldn’t stand him. “Carrey suggests an escaped mental patient impersonating a game-show host — and, what’s worse, his hyperbolically obnoxious shtick is the whole damned show,” wrote Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman about Ace Ventura, giving it an F.

But audiences loved Carrey, and he kept going, stealing 1995’s Batman Forever as the Riddler and then later that year delivering Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, which made even more money than the original. From there, he went darker, starring in the black comedy The Cable Guy before trying his hand at more family-friendly fare with the sweet, slapstick-y Liar Liar, another massive hit. Finally, in 1998, he gave his first serious performance, playing the unwitting reality star Truman Burbank in The Truman Show, which earned him easily the best reviews of his career to that point.

Carrey may have been denied an Oscar nomination for The Truman Show, but nonetheless he was in the most enviable of positions: He had box-office clout and rising critical cachet. It’s rare for movie stars to have both at the same time, and they’ll often use that power to take a chance on a passion project. For Carrey, that came in the form of a biopic about Kaufman that would be directed by Milos Forman, the man behind the Best Picture-winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus. Forman wasn’t sure about Carrey in the role, requiring the superstar to audition for the part. But once Carrey convinced Forman he had the chops to pull it off, he decided to have a camera crew follow him on the set of Man in the Moon as he dove deep into his portrayal of Kaufman and his contentious alter ego, the lounge singer Tony Clifton.

How deep did Carrey go? The behind-the-scenes footage, which has remained locked away by Carrey until its inclusion in Jim & Andy, shows that the actor stayed in character throughout the shoot, pretending he was Andy or Tony and getting mad if Forman or anyone else referred to him as Jim. (Carrey even spoke to his Grinch director, Ron Howard, on the phone as Kaufman while making Man on the Moon, forcing the filmmaker to play along.) “The true author of [Man on the Moon] is Andy and his genius, the fact that he committed so completely to what he did, really made that possible and made it essential for me to lose myself,” Carrey told The Hollywood Reporter in September. “I don’t feel like I made the film at all. I feel like Andy made the film.”

That’s certainly the impression one gets after watching Jim & Andy. We see as Carrey (as Kaufman or Clifton) aggravates and harasses all those around him. (Costar Danny DeVito looks like he wants to punch the guy.) As a commitment to craft, it’s mesmerizing, but it’s also hard not to grow impatient with Carrey’s hostile, bullying behavior.

Man on the Moon got mostly good reviews. (Ironically, Gleiberman, who had loathed Ace Ventura, picked Man on the Moon as the best film of 1999, calling it “a brilliant, maniacally funny and dizzying experience” and declared, “Carrey’s performance is an impersonation on the level of genius … but what makes it indelible is its joy.”) Nonetheless, it died at the box office, getting nowhere close to earning back its reported $82 million budget. Carrey won a second Golden Globe, but he again failed to earn an Oscar nomination.

In subsequent years, Carrey has followed an unsteady career path. He appeared in the nutso thriller The Number 23, another flop, but was terrific as the beaten-down, heartsick loser of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He did kids’ films (Horton Hears a Who!, A Christmas Carol, Mr. Popper’s Penguins), high-concept hits (Bruce Almighty) and quirky R-rated indie comedies (I Love You, Phillip Morris). Surprisingly, in Jim & Andy, he explains that each of those roles has filled a need in him. “Everything speaks to me, it’s the weirdest thing,” he says. “Every movie I’ve gotten in my life … I could tell you, somehow, how that was the absolute manifestation of my consciousness at that time.”

But the early promise — the wild explosion of talent and excitement and joy — isn’t there much anymore.

Instead, there have been waves of upsetting stories: his angry anti-vaccination rants; the accusations that he provided prescription drugs to his girlfriend Cathriona White, who committed suicide in 2015. That summer, The Daily Beast dedicated an entire article to his “descent into madness,” chronicling his myriad strange exploits, like when he made a video declaring his love for Emma Stone, who’s 26 years younger than he is. The weirdness continues to this day: Earlier this fall, he gave an odd red-carpet interview in which he declared, “I don’t believe in personalities. I don’t believe that you exist. But there’s a wonderful fragrance in the air.”

Carrey’s seeming instability hasn’t much found its way into his onscreen work, but it’s on full display in Jim & Andy. Sure, he appears relatively sedate and introspective, but his graying beard and still-lively eyes give off a sense that he’s been out in the wilderness a while — both metaphorically and literally. That wiry energy powers the film, supplying his Zen-like observations about mortality and contentment with more than a dash of the loony. “Whatever the hell is going to happen,” he says near the documentary’s end, “I’m just great. … You’re on a spiritual journey, period, and we’re all going to end up in the same place, if there is such a thing. And maybe there isn’t. Maybe it’s just this, and that’s it. … I like that, that’s fine.”

What you get from Jim & Andy is, in a way, what you’ve always gotten from Jim Carrey. There’s an intelligence at work, but you can’t always figure out what he’s up to. One thing is abundantly clear, though: Carrey definitely disappeared into Andy Kaufman for Man on the Moon. I’m just not convinced he ever fully emerged afterward.