Lukewarm Takes: Jim & Andy in The Great Beyond
I was diagnosed as Bipolar late in 2011. I’m not sure how accurate the diagnosis is. I think Bipolar is over-diagnosed these days, and that furthermore, what snowflakes indulgently refer to as “Mental illness” can be quickly and permanently cured with regular butt-whuppings from a sturdy leather belt and a heaping helping of Jesus.
I don’t know whether I am genuinely Bipolar, but I do feel that I have experienced at least one manic episode. Mine occurred while I was on the road following Phish in 2011 for what would become You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me when, due to a potent cocktail of over-work, stress, stress deprivation, drugs and intense Depression and Anxiety, my mind went to a weird, dark, scary and wonderful place it had never been to before and, with the right combination of medication and therapy, will hopefully never return to again.
One of the primary things that got me through that awful, awesome, crazy, life-affirming period was the knowledge, or at least the hope, that it would someday end. I could not wait for the day when I would be able to look back both perspective and pride at what I had experienced, as a crucible that I had to go through in my journey as a writer and a human being that transformed my life in overwhelmingly positive ways.
My manic episode was a gift and a curse. It gave me the energy and ambition and inner fury to finally finish the book but it played havoc with my psyche and sense of self. It transformed me. I ended it a changed man.
So when I see someone experiencing a manic episode on a television show or in a movie or in the crazy movie we call “Life”, I don’t just recognize it intellectually, as analogous to something that I went through that left a big mark on me, an indelible brand upon my frazzled brain. No, my body recognizes it as well. It triggers a vivid sense memory and for a brief moment I will experience a tiny echo of that utterly transformative event, a shiver of what I felt when it seemed my body and my mind were no longer my own, that I was now being ruled by strange moods and madness from somewhere both deep inside me yet a universe away.
My body and mind reacted that way watching Chris Smith’s Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, a compulsively watchable behind the scenes documentary about Jim Carrey losing his mind during the filming of Man on the Moon and terrorizing his director and co-stars in what felt unmistakably to me like a major manic episode that was being documented for posterity.
One of the hallmarks of a manic episode, at least as I experienced it from the inside out, is that you cannot understand it while it is happening. You need a sense of perspective and distance that can only come with time, with being out of that frenzied place long enough to have ample time to reflect on what it meant and why it happened.
If you’re Jim Carrey that means being able to sit down nearly twenty years later with a cup of tea and a beard reaching hermit/prophet-lengths and discourse loftily about your spiritual journey, and your complicated but rich evolution as an ACTOR and comedian and seeker of messy truths in ways that establish that you are both deep, man, and also full of shit.
I can totally see how Carrey’s manic brain would not just tell him, but scream so loud that it blocks out everything else, how it’s not just preferable but essential that he become Andy Kaufman in the process of playing him, to the point where Kaufman’s own daughter could swing by and experience the catharsis with Jim’s Fake Andy that fate and early death robbed her of getting to have with her real dad.
That is some wild shit. I’d be like if they turned The Big Rewind into a movie and one day I showed up on set they said, “Hey, Patricia Clarkson is here in character and costume as your mother. Wanna spend an hour or so with her so that she can tell you how proud she is of you, and how she never meant to abandon you? Maybe we could knock out some closure for you and your dead mother before we break for lunch?”
But when you’re the biggest comedy star in the planet, as Carrey was when Man on the Moon was made you can get away with just about everything. If you’re Carrey, you can force a major motion picture production to accommodate your manic episode, to let its rampaging, nonsensical but urgent, seemingly undeniable rhythms dictate the tone and pace and professionalism of the production.
You can insist on filming the entire movie in character as Kaufman, to commit as much to Kaufman’s pranks and provocations and angry-making absurdist shenanigans as to the words and emotions of the script. You can drive Milos Forman, your director, the esteemed maestro behind, appropriately enough, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and coworkers crazy and have your flagrant misbehavior romanticized as the method madness of a true artist pushing his gift to the limit rather than condemned as unprofessional and unacceptable.
If an unknown pulled the kind of shit Carrey does here, she would be fired instantly and become permanently unemployable. But when Carrey does it they make a movie about what a goddamn genius he was and how now he has attained nirvana.
Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond combines new interviews with Guru Carrey that give insight and perspective into voluminous behind-the-scene footage of The Man on the Moon chronicling, with horror, empathy and no small level of mortification what happened when Carrey decided to eliminate any boundaries between himself and the character he was playing in search of a greater artistic truth unreachable through conventional, non-crazy and non-abrasive means.
That meant that Carrey was essentially making two movies. There was the movie where he played Andy Kaufman in a fairly conventional biopic and then there was the movie that was happening behind the scenes, where Carrey was attempting a tricky soul-meld with Kaufman where they essentially became the same person, and this Jim Carrey/Andy Kaufman mutation starred in Man on the Moon, not Carrey the actor, who disappeared except for the part where his actorly ego threatened to swallow up the whole movie with its all-consuming vastness. .
Throughout The Great Beyond the pained smiles and optimistic words of actors cursed with having to deal with Jim Carrey in character as Andy Kaufman say, “What an honor and a pleasure to be working with a comic genius and superstar like Jim Carrey!” but the pained expression on their faces silently but clearly convey, “I cannot sanction this man’s buffoonery!”
Another hallmark of a manic episode is intense self-obsession. The wild firing of your synapses and the extreme yet seemingly genius ideas flooding your brain becomes your whole world, blocking everything else out and short circuiting the parts of your brain devoted to empathy and self-control and self-preservation.
It’s a goddamn tricky thing being a genius. It’s also extremely difficult being Jim Carrey. At one point he talks about how Michel Gondry told him that his fundamental brokenness made him perfect for the lead role in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind but that they wouldn’t start filming for another year so it was important that he not get better emotionally, that he hold onto that sadness and Depression and sense of incompleteness for at least a year so that he could be in the ideal mind state to make a movie.
That is fucking insane. As someone who wrestles with mental illness, what Gondry supposedly did seems unforgivable, immoral, downright pathological. You don’t tell a sick man to remain sick for an extended period of time for the sake of art. If you love someone, you want them to get better, to heal, to be the best, healthiest person they can be
But as a cinephile I understand all too well where Gondry was coming from. Some awful part of my brain wonders if the torment Carrey endured was worth it because it led to great art, to Carrey delivering a performance of real depth and raw emotional power in a timeless masterpiece that says something profound and real about the human condition.
I came to The Great Beyond from an unusual perspective. I read, and loathed, Bob Zmuda’s odious last book, which outs Kaufman as bisexual seemingly against his fervent wishes, cynically pretends that he faked his death and is still alive, and will reveal himself and his true destiny soon and devotes ample space to gushing about this amazing behind the scenes footage he and Kaufman’s girlfriend Lynne Margulies (ostensibly the co-author of Zmuda’s latest tell-all, though she seems to have contributed almost nothing to it, to her credit) filmed during the making of Man on the Moon that the public might never see because Carrey was too worried about his all-important movie star image.
Reading the book I found myself wishing I could experience this amazing footage of Jim Carrey on set without making Bob Zmuda happy or feeding into his image of himself as the holy keeper of Andy Kaufman’s legacy.
Director Chris Smith, whose bravura portraits of artists pushed to the breaking point include American Movie and the Netflix Fyre Festival documentary, accomplishes just that here. Zmuda clearly saw the footage as the raw material for a film exploring the holy trinity of Zmuda, Kaufman and Carrey and how they all merged into one contrarian prankster God during the making of Man on the Moon.
Instead Smith made a movie about Carrey and Kaufman that gives him Zmuda only as much credit and onscreen time as is absolutely necessary, effectively reducing him to a glorified cameo.
Yes, Smith did a lot of things right here, like elbowing Zmuda out of the picture entirely so that he could create a fascinating exploration of show-business narcissism that’s extraordinary revealing about Carrey and the way he sees the world, albeit in ways Carrey probably did not intend.
I left this unique documentary with a new appreciation for Carrey as an artist and human being. I related to Jim Carrey in The Great Beyond as a fellow spiritual seeker and as someone who has known what it means to be Bipolar and know Depression on the deepest possible level. Truth be told, I also related to him as someone who cannot talk about spirituality and LIFE and art and you know, the things that really matter, without coming off like a pretentious jackass.
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