End Games


This is the week of the new and improved: Man on the Moon resurrects Andy Kaufman in the form of superstar Jim Carrey, Julie Taymor turns Shakespeare’s worst play into flashy Oscar fodder, and Oliver Stone tackles the great macho American metaphor.

Neither spectacle nor drama, Stone’s 160-minute football saga Any Given Sunday is more like a visual concussion. The camera is moving, the actors are screaming—and those are just the locker-room scenes. Stone must’ve run five editors ragged assembling the game footage. Rub-your-nose-in-the-dirt close-ups alternate with dirigible high-angle shots, and there’s a great recurring effect where the ball spirals downfield toward the camera until—wham!—some tight end flies on-camera to snag it. But mostly, the on-field trials of the Miami Sharks are rendered in the filmmaker’s patented LSD-laced-with-strychnine effect—power blurs, slo-mo double vision, kaleido fades, lightning bolts, and celestial superimpositions.

How can Stone’s flawed hero, Sharks coach Al Pacino, blame TV for the degradation of the game when the soundtrack suggests a two-and-a-half-hour loop of the theme to Sports Machine punctuated with Indian chants and the sound of snapping bones? Even Pacino is subsumed in the bombast, as is corrupt team doctor James Woods, until he gets the hook—still screaming, “They ARE gladiators, they are WARRIORS!” The action itself is interspersed with cutaways to dishy cheerleaders and Stone himself in the broadcast booth: “Holy mackerel—that is football!” What makes him so sure? You might see the same thing if someone clamped your head between those paddles the guys in Bringing Out the Dead used to shock stilled hearts.

The movie is its own half-time show, complete with beer commercials—as when the Sharks play touch football with a beachful of bethonged beauties. Any Given Sunday doesn’t look like any previous sports film—He Got Game is Ozu by comparison—but the narrative is somewhat less novel. When the Sharks’ star quarterback (Dennis Quaid) is injured, the unknown third-stringer (Jamie Foxx) takes over. Brilliant but moody, Foxx’s character has a trademark upchuck routine and harbors some attitudes—indeed, the militantly square Pacino, suffering through a film-length midlife crisis, discovers that the kid is a sort of hip-hop black nationalist philosopher. Pacino is getting old. The team’s ruthless boss lady (Cameron Diaz) criticizes his lack of intensity—even if his idea of relaxing has something to do with blasting the chariot race from Ben Hur on a wall-sized TV.

For a mad minute, it seems as though Stone might be making a movie about how football wraps religion, business, sex, and violence in one superbly telegenic package. Later, he settles for the less ambitious notion that America is all about kicking ass. (The socially conscious director does include a scene alluding to athletes and domestic violence: Quaid is verbally and physically abused by his harridan wife.) Ultimately, everything turns out to be corrupt and also beautiful . . . homosocially speaking of course.

Any Given Sunday slows to a crawl before the big game—a monstrous anthology of clichés, including the gimpy old quarterback’s last hurrah, the young buck’s coming of age, the coach fighting for his career, and the injured vet playing on bad debts and cortisone. The fate of the Free World hangs in the balance, and Stone is back in the booth warning that “this is where the famous rubber meets the famous road.”

Everything from the goal-line stand to the 10-second Hail Mary happens more or less on schedule—although I did see one of the “screening extras” used to pad the press preview clap with excitement four plays before the game ended. Don’t you make the mistake of bolting before the credits end. There’s a last-minute zinger—although I’m pretty sure that in the real-life NFL it would be considered tampering.

** The second coming of the late Andy Kaufman is an appropriately self-reflexive affair. As star Jim Carrey staged a lame mock-Kaufman disruption at the Man on the Moon junket, so the movie itself opens with a pastiche of Kaufman’s 1978 television special, Andy’s Fun House (currently showing at the Museum of Television and Radio), which serves to introduce his key tropes of childhood, TV, and failure.

Cutting from the child Andy, singing a kid’s song for his sister, to grown-up Andy 20 years later, provoking an incredulous Improv audience with an equally sincere rendition of the same inane song, Man on the Moon poses the central Kaufman enigma. Was this guy the holy innocent of stand-up comedy? A real-life Chauncey Gardner mimicking everything he learned on television? A conscious practitioner of Zen slapstick? A mass-market performance artist? A postpolitical yippie? (And if he was just doing his thing, what was that? Borderline autism? Split personality? Arrested development?)

“I’m not a comedian. I don’t do jokes,” Kaufman tells his prospective agent (played by Taxi costar Danny DeVito) in Man on the Moon. “I don’t even know what’s funny.” Basically, Kaufman confounded expectations with a deadpan refusal to break character and a fearless willingness to bomb. Even at his late-’70s height, Kaufman was pretty much a cult taste. He placed himself beyond the pale as an outrageously sexist wrestler-villain, taunting the crowds while offering $500 to any woman who could pin him.

Movie as boxed CD set, Man on the Moon offers an anthology of Kaufman’s greatest hits: the hilariously unfunny Foreign Man, uncanny Elvis, minimalist rendition of the Mighty Mouse song on Saturday Night Live, chaotic scuffle on the set of the live show Fridays, and Carnegie Hall milk-and-cookies concert. The acts hold up but, for Foreman, it’s the same thing over and over. Repeatedly, as if by some contractual agreement, he cuts to the reaction of Kaufman’s baffled parents: “That kid is totally meshugge.”

Man on the Moon is as hyperreal in its way as Ed Wood (also written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski). The movie is stocked with celebrities, from David Letterman to the cast of Taxi, who are pleased to appear as themselves. Carrey nails his character’s distinctively avid, wide-eyed stare—at once frozen-faced and shifty—even as he gives Kaufman an additionally wired and paranoid edge. The effect is not unlike one of Richard Estes’s insanely detailed representations of storefronts on upper Broadway. It’s an obvious performance, but wasn’t that always the point? (Indeed, Carrey’s imitation of Kaufman’s sometime alter ego—the supremely obnoxious lounge singer, Tony Clifton—might be even better than Kaufman’s.)

Carrey seems to have conceived Kaufman as a sort of Truman Burbank turned inside out—a man who knowingly treated the world as his TV show. But, television aside, there’s no social context. The movie is considerably less expansive than Foreman’s last essay in American craziness, The People vs. Larry Flynt. The filmmakers don’t even attempt to give Kaufman an inner life. (The big revelation: Andy remains a ’50s kid at heart. He still gets choked up at Lassie.) The dragged-out ending avoids bathos thanks only to Kaufman’s particular genius. There’s a sense of that genius in Man on the Moon but even more to be found in Andy’s Fun House.

** A nonstop carnival of murder, rape, and mutilation that begins with a human sacrifice and culminates in a cannibal feast, Titus Andronicus is William Shakespeare’s contribution to the gross-out horror-comedy. The filmmaker best suited to bring it to the screen would’ve been Hershel Gordon Lewis or the Brian De Palma of Carrie. (The most nightmarish prospect: Oliver Stone.) The much lionized Julie Taymor staged the play in 1994, and while her film version isn’t exactly a solemn spectacle, neither is it much fun.

Taymor repeats her stage prologue—a kid making an increasingly combustible mess with a bunch of toy soldiers—before making with the Sturm und Drang herself as victorious General Titus Andronicus (Anthony Hopkins) parades his captive Goths through the Roman colosseum. Taymor’s “Look Ma, I’m filming!” use of creative geography and jazzy camera angles precludes even the most minimal emotional involvement. As the body count mounts, the Romans party—a sub-Rocky Horror fashion parade of leather trenchcoats and black lipstick.

Competing with this sodden mise-en-scène, the relatively laid-back Americans come off better than the raging Brits. Where Alan Cumming’s fascist fop would have been laughed out of Cabaret, Jessica Lange makes a splendid Goth queen. (The nipples on her golden breastplate are a nice touch.) Given the stupidity of the tragedy’s nominal hero, Taymor zeroes in on Aaron, the supervillainous Moor, as its most articulate figure: “Aaron will have his soul black like his face,” Harry Lennix hisses in his big scene. Hopkins meanwhile cavorts like a herky-jerky puppet. Evidently he didn’t need to see the finished movie before informing the press of his decision to give up acting.