'Jim & Andy' captures Jim Carrey's deep dive into Andy Kaufman

Posted November 13, 2017 1:53 p.m. EST

— Tales about tortured artists (and comedians in particular) are a dime a dozen. Yet "Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond" -- a Netflix documentary about Jim Carrey's total immersion into the role of Andy Kaufman while making the 1998 biopic "Man on the Moon" -- somehow feels utterly fresh, presenting the toll paid by two eccentric comedic geniuses for the price of one.

Culled from 100 hours of footage shot throughout the movie's filming, and augmented by recent interviews, director Chris Smith's movie strongly suggests that the method approach Carrey used in making that movie -- which included never breaking character, on or off the set -- has stuck with him to this day.

At the time one of the world's biggest box-office draws, it subtly explains why we haven't seen as much of Carrey. Indeed, listening to him now, it sounds as if parts of Kaufman are still bouncing around inside his head.

Kaufman, of course, was a comic like few others, featuring an act that possessed a peculiar current of performance art, designed as much to confuse and perplex as elicit laughs. Carrey embraced very aspect of that, down to baiting wrestler Jerry Lawler -- who had famously body-slammed Kaufman during a stunt match -- during the filming, to the point where a confused Lawler wanted to mop the floor with him too.

Kaufman's shtick was further complicated by his Tony Clifton character, a persona into which he periodically disappeared, and which his pal, Bob Zmuda, also played with near-equal facility. That created almost surreal moments, where folks wondered how Kaufman could seemingly be in two places at once. (The documentary adds the subtitle "Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton," perhaps just to bedevil poor souls marketing the DVD.)

The art-imitates-life elements of "Man on the Moon" were such that the 20-year-old footage captures director Milos Forman grumbling about his inability to have an actual conversation with his ostensible star, while having to deal with Carrey as Clifton. Those who knew Kaufman, such as "Taxi" co-stars Danny DeVito and his manager George Shapiro, alternately express bemusement and befuddlement over Carrey's transformation and Kaufman's uncanny sort-of resurrection.

Carrey speaks in the present of the "spiritual journey" he has undergone, but there's a lingering sense in his slightly ethereal comments that the trip never ended. In that regard, it's an especially potent portrayal of an artist suffering for his craft, yielding a feature-length experience that's thoughtful, amusing and a little disturbing all at once.

In addition to the making of the movie, "Jim & Andy" flits back and forth between biographical material from the two men's lives, finding areas of commonality that informed their development as performers and people.

The takeaway is that thanks to "Man on the Moon," Carrey and Kaufman will remain forever linked. And thanks to "Jim & Andy," viewers will come away not just with greater insight about them, but also the pitfalls that potentially face those who beat the odds by turning an open-mic night into a thriving career.

"Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond -- Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton" premieres Nov. 17 on Netflix.