Judge Alice Nelson used to think "Latka Gravas" was a fancy German pastry served with whipped cream.
What if someone thought you faked your own death and made a really lousy documentary about it? You might wanna remain fake dead.
Andy Kaufman was not my kind of funny, I think the only thing he did that was even remotely amusing was the annoying Latka Gravas from the seventies sit-com Taxi. Filmmaker Christopher Maloney however, has something of a man-crush on the comedian and has put this love into the documentary The Death of Andy Kaufman, a meandering documentary that's steeped in conspiracy but short on proof.
Facts of the Case
On May 16, 1984, comedian Andy Kaufman died at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles from a rare form of lung cancer—or did he? Soon after, stories began to surface about a plan Kaufman had to fake his own death, disappear for a few years and then resurface, accomplishing—in his mind—the greatest hoax ever. In The Death of Andy Kaufman, writer and director Christopher Maloney uses photos and public domain performances to explore the short but strange life and career of Andy Kaufman, and sets out to prove whether or not this 'man in the moon' is indeed alive and well here on planet earth.
The Death of Andy Kaufman is a tale of two movies; one, a fascinating study of Kaufman's early life and career and the other a dull, fruitless tale of rumors and conspiracies. In the first half of the film, Maloney gives us a glimpse of Kaufman's life as a child, his loving relationship with his parents and close ties to his younger brother Michael. We also get a glimpse of some of his earliest performances including one where Kaufman, with a group of unsuspecting audience members, lip-syncs to the kid's classic "Old MacDonald Had a Farm," a homage of sorts to the children's shows he loved to watch when he was younger and which influenced him greatly in his career. Not one word is spoken as the skit continues, to the dismay of the obviously uncomfortable spectators who were now part of the act. Kaufman never breaks character and this kind of blurring the lines between the real 'Andy' and the characters he portrayed would be a common theme in his career. Kaufman's routines seemed to purposely bring about the discomfort of people, a trait Maloney presents as admirable, just part of the comedian's artistry. However it was often hard to tell if this was just Kaufman's quirky performance style or if he was simply just a big jerk.
Once Maloney shifted to the controversy surrounding Kaufman's death, the film ground to a halt. What was once a study of the genesis of a performer became a tedious exercise in futility, with unfounded rumors of sightings of Kaufman after his death, bizarre accusations that his parents knew he was still alive and even a convoluted theory that Kaufman enlisted the aid of a dying cancer patient named Nathan McCoy, whose diagnosis Kaufman used as his own. The worst part of The Death of Andy Kaufman was the bizarre interview between Maloney and Andy's younger brother Michael. It took up the final 20 minutes of the movie and those few minutes felt like hours, as the two chatted as if it were a private conversation being recorded, where nothing particularly interesting was being said. This interview was so powerful a sedative that you really should not drive or operate heavy machinery for hours after watching it.
In the end, this documentary is nothing more than Christopher Maloney paying tribute to a man whose talents he admired greatly. Unfortunately, for the rest of us, it's a promising idea with no payoff.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Death of Andy Kaufman was Christopher Maloney's first movie out of film school and he managed to present a partially interesting biography of a very complex man. Had he focused only on the tangible aspects of Kaufman's life and not veered off into speculation and fantasy, it might've been a touching tribute to a misunderstood entertainer. Christopher Maloney was able to show Andy Kaufman in an empathetic manner and I think his ability to do that to a figure as polarizing as Kaufman will serve Maloney well in his future as a filmmaker.
I enjoyed The Death of Andy Kaufman most when Maloney dealt with Kaufman's early life and the bizarre routines that made him famous. From the chauvinist who wrestled women, to the lounge singing, over the hill entertainer Tony Clifton, audiences never knew what they were going to get with the man. He could sit at a table for his entire act and eat dinner, or take the audience out for milk and cookies afterwards. Although not my cup of tea, he was by far an intriguing figure that to this day still inhabits the hearts of many of his fans.
Guilty, but Maloney is credited with time already served.
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Scales of Justice
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