Venice Film Fest 2023 Review: “Thank You Very Much” Pins Down the Genius of Andy Kaufman

Sincerity was never a strength of Andy Kaufman, but finding moments where he actually showed it in public is one of director Alex Braverman’s in “Thank You Very Much,” honing in on an interview that the comedian/performance artist did with Howdy Doody as a bit of a Rosetta Stone. For much of the world watching “Andy’s Funhouse” TV special in 1979, the segment seemed like a surreal bit like any other Kaufman would stage, behaving as if the ventriloquist dummy was a real-life human being and never giving away the joke by playing it for laughs, but as those close to him such as longtime girlfriend Lynne Margulies and friend Dennis Raimondi describe what they knew of his childhood in Great Neck, New York where he sought solace in television, Howdy Doody was indeed as real as anyone else in his orbit and moments like these were where he might drop his act and no one would be the wiser.

Braverman is hardly the first to investigate where Kaufman’s genius came from — both Milos Forman’s “Man on the Moon” and Chris Smith’s “Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond” about Jim Carrey’s full-on immersion into playing his idol in the Forman film would seem to be as good as it gets for any one artist to expect. But “Thank You Very Much” has time on its side, even more so than the previous efforts, not only allowing for an excavation of materials that haven’t publicly seen the light of day before, but speaking in psychological terms that probably wouldn’t have been a part of any documentary even five years ago. Key to the film is the participation of Bob Zmuda, who was so intertwined creatively with Kaufman that they would trade shifts playing the abrasive lounge singer Tony Clifton, and has continued to keep up the act even after Kaufman’s death in 1984, never ruling out the possibility that it was another of his stunts.

Still, as willing as “Thank You Very Much” is to indulge a bit of speculation, making clear that it intends to respect its subject’s wishes from its opening scene in which Kaufman outlines what he imagines a movie about his life would play out like and then following suit, Zmuda and Margulies made a point of noting that they had waited to publish their 2014 book about Kaufman, “The Truth, Finally” until after his parents passed and the film comes across as a beneficiary of this newfound candor, very much focusing on Kaufman’s youth as a formative experience, particularly the death of his beloved grandfather at the age of four that his mother and father wanted to shield him from by claiming he was traveling.

Braverman and editors Jarad Jeter and Alan Lowe engage in a fuzzy chronology of events when it comes to Kaufman’s career, but the connections they make between what he was doing and what he was thinking couldn’t be any sharper when it links his proclivity towards deception with his parents’ lie about his grandfather and his fascination with wrestling to afternoons spent with his grandmother, a pro wrestling fan. It also actively gives an understanding of his search for spiritual meaning that other biographies feel like they’ve only skimmed the surface of, having access to such things as footage of Kaufman parlaying what seems to be a genuine question — “What is the value of entertainment?” — to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the creator of transcendental meditation, into an amusing exchange for the benefit of the audience when it takes a while for the guru to answer, appearing to turn to comedy as a survival mechanism in the moment.

Although “Thank You Very Much” dutifully covers the major milestones in Kaufman’s life, Braverman wisely picks a few choice moments to dig into as revealing of the mind behind the madness – his Carnegie Hall show, being thrown off the Paramount lot when not breaking from his Tony Clifton persona inspired a cast and crew revolt, and his period of challenging women to wrestle (notably giving less time to his feud with Jerry Lawler) – and the approach yields deeper insight than a broader overview, surely aware its got the goods to send viewers down a rabbit hole of Kaufman’s most famous exploits after. “Thank You Very Much” finds that by demystifying Kaufman, the more of a mystery his career becomes as he tested the limits of what the public would tolerate and still stick with him, becoming as much a film about us as much as him and for someone who wanted to disappear into character and see how the audience would react, that seems like the ultimate tribute.

“Thank You Very Much” will screen at the Venice Film Festival on September 1st at the Sala Vople at 4:45 pm.

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