Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond is a fascinating documentary that alternates between a contemporary interview with actor Jim Carrey and behind-the-scenes footage from the 1999 film Man on the Moon, in which he portrayed the late comedian Andy Kauffman.
During filming, Carrey refused to break character when the cameras weren’t rolling, which made for a surreal experience for the actor and others. “No one knew what was real or not real,” Carrey says.
It becomes apparent that this is a theme in Carrey’s own life as he reflects on his views on reality and identity, which he gleans from everything from the films he starred in to Christianity, existentialism and an Eastern-ish spiritualism.
Several times, Carrey mentions The Truman Show, in which he played a man raised, unknown to him, in the simulated town of Seaside in a television show revolving around his life. “It’s about looking at life as a film, as a movie,” said a younger Carrey in old footage. “It’s nothing more than that. It’s an illusion.”
Two decades later, he’s still drawn to that view. “This — us — is Seaside,” he says of the world today. “This is the dome. This isn’t real. . . . This is a story.”
Carrey speculates that his real-life Truman-like journey is one we all share. We are all the avatars, or the images, we create to appear popular or successful, he says. But what we all long for is “our own absence,” to escape from ourselves.
In a Washington Post review, Dan Zak wonders if Carrey is “auditioning for the role of a 21st-century philosopher we didn’t know we needed.” But in a Facebook post linking to the review, biblical scholar David Fitch digs deeper into these ideas, calling Carrey “a study in the dilemma of the collapse of the Enlightenment subject.” Indeed, Carrey seems to personify the crisis of an identity formed by culture, which has undergone a profound shift.
For 200 years, the prevailing Enlightened and increasingly secular culture has, as N.T. Wright puts it in Simply Christian, tried to pave over anything spiritual. But spirituality is so integral to the human condition that it is like hidden springs “that bubble up within human hearts.”
Secular philosophy sought to free us from superstition and religion — compartmentalizing the spiritual from the rest of life, at best; encouraging life “as if the rumor of God had never existed,” at worst.
But spirituality can’t be suppressed for long: “The hidden springs have erupted; the concrete foundation has been burst open.”
Carrey seems to reflect an identity formed by the muddy waters resulting from that spiritual eruption. Perhaps we do, too.
At the end of the documentary, Carrey still struggles with the question of whether he holds a solid identity. He wonders if he could do what he did with Kauffman with somebody else.
“I wonder what would happen,” he muses, “if I just decided to be Jesus?”
As I pondered whether that would bring meaning to Carrey’s life or if Jesus would simply be another avatar he wore among others, it struck me that this is our own dilemma as well.
Maybe Carrey’s right about one thing: Perhaps all of us, deep down, long to escape ourselves. We long to be rescued. And that’s what Jesus offers: a fresh, free new life and a rooted, true identity full of purpose.
Are we experiencing that? If not, it’s a good time to start asking why.
Carmen Andres, a former editor of the Mennonite Brethren magazine Christian Leader, lives in Alexandria, Va.