There’s acting, and then there’s Method acting, and then, way out on the fringes of what’s considered acceptable and professional, there’s what we might call Xtreme Method Acting. Basically, the word “cut” ceases to have much meaning for the duration of the shoot. The actor is always in character, must always be addressed in character, steadfastly refuses to acknowledge his (it’s almost always a he) real identity. This is a gigantic pain in the ass for everyone else involved in the project, but worth enduring when it enables the alchemical genius of a Daniel Day-Lewis, for example. But what happens when the Xtreme Method Actor plays someone whose entire public life essentially constituted an Xtreme Method performance? If the actor wouldn’t stop inhabiting the character, and the character wouldn’t stop trolling the world (to the point that some people still don’t believe that he really died, 33 years later), where does the madness end?
Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond—Featuring A Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention Of Tony Clifton (yes, that’s the actual title) is a documentary constructed from behind-the-scenes footage shot for Man On The Moon, the 1999 Andy Kaufman biopic starring Jim Carrey. This material, intended for the usual DVD extras and so forth, proved to be so abrasive and potentially alienating that it was never used, and has been sitting on the shelf for the past two decades. Carrey, a Kaufman fanatic, had obsessively campaigned for the role; once he won it, he wasn’t about to relinquish it. He remained Kaufman—or Kaufman’s cartoonishly obnoxious lounge act of an alter ego, Tony Clifton—at all times, resurrecting the prankster’s button-pushing idiosyncrasies and uncomfortably realistic fake feuds. When wrestler Jerry Lawler showed up to play himself, Carrey went way too far in taunting him, just as Kaufman surely would have. And pity Man On The Moon’s director, two-time Oscar winner Miloš Forman (One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus), who’s repeatedly seen struggling to engage his star in serious and necessary conversations about the work, only to be met with Kaufman’s calculated indifference to convention or Clifton’s standard barrage of insults and anarchy.
The task of assembling this hodgepodge of on-the-fly footage into a feature has fallen to Chris Smith, who made his name chronicling behind-the-scenes ludicrousness in American Movie (which coincidentally came out the same year as Man On The Moon). Smith could have gone the purist route and used only what was shot in the late ’90s, or he could have gone the traditional route and conducted present-day interviews with everyone involved. Instead, he supplements the archival stuff by talking extensively to Carrey, decked out in a post-retirement-Letterman beard and eager to wax philosophical. This interview, which is interspersed with the Moon material, takes up roughly half of Jim & Andy’s running time, and while it may be revelatory for those who know Carrey only as Ace Ventura and Lloyd Christmas, and will surely delight the actor’s hardcore fans, viewers who fall somewhere in between (i.e., almost everyone) may grow weary of his extemporaneous musing on the nature of acting, of art, of the very universe itself.
At the same time, there’s something bracing about the difficulty of reconciling this earnest middle-aged hippie with his maniacally impish younger self. The funhouse-mirror aspect of Jim & Andy reaches its apex when Carrey, speaking to Forman on the phone as himself (ostensibly from somewhere far from the set), commiserates with his director about the headaches “Kaufman” and “Clifton” are causing. Carrey’s solution: Forman should fire them both, and Carrey will impersonate them. The older Carrey looks back on this insanity with a poignant amalgam of shame and pride. He made people’s lives pure hell, but he honored Kaufman’s total commitment to a gag, at almost any expense. Nobody can call him a slacker.