And Kaufman's real-life friends are sprinkled throughout the film in cameo roles: Shapiro, Zmuda, Johnny Legend, "Little Wendy" Polland, Lorne Michaels and most of the "Taxi" cast all show up in what amounts to a more moving homage than the actual movie.
Conducting them all with his manic, manipulative genius is Kaufman, played by Carrey with the inspired energy of a man convinced this is the role he was born to play. Carrey doesn't have the icy blue eyes, but he has the same intense, full-iris stare that made Kaufman's gaze so disconcerting, and he has mastered the comedian's many tics and habits down to the last compulsive hand-wipe.
Kaufman's demise (he died in 1984 at the age of 35 from a rare form of lung cancer) is portrayed with just the right touch of irony, when he realizes on a visit to a mystical healer that he's now the mark in someone else's racket. It's a moment that encapsulates the humor and elegiac beauty that suffuse "Man on the Moon," which is given a lovely contemplative lilt from the musical score, comprising mostly R.E.M.'s orchestral riffs on their title song.
Watching him soar and flame out one more time is to realize that despite "Man on the Moon's" deliciously ambiguous conclusion notwithstanding, we don't have Kaufman to kick us around anymore and that we're much the poorer for it.
`Man on the Moon'
Starring Jim Carrey, Danny DeVito, Courtney Love, Paul Giamatti
Directed by Milos Forman
Rated R (language and brief sexuality/nudity)
Running time 118 minutes
Released by Universal Pictures
Sun score ****