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Thank You Very Much: Venice Film Review

Thank You Very Much, Alex Braverman’s documentary on anti-comedian Andy Kaufman, is a simplistic but effective retelling.

In the late 70s, the comedy scene was taken by storm by Jewish comedian Andy Kaufman, whose act was to be as deliberately, abrasively antagonistic as the limits of societal temperament would allow. From his ‘foreign man’ character – a horrid regurgitation of eastern European stereotypes – to the chain smoking alter-ego Tony Clifton, he found humour in the tiny space between something being awkward before then turning into confrontation. Premiering at Venice in 2023 is Alex Braverman’s expertly simple documentary Thank You Very Much (produced by the Safdie brothers’ production company Elara Pictures), which sets out to remind audiences of Kaufman’s frivolities and takes on the task of trying to explain the headspace that the is-he-isn’t-he-dead anti-comedian was in throughout his short but everlasting career before his supposed untimely death.

The doc begins by extracting Andy’s childhood from polaroids and home footage, explaining how Andy lost his grandad at an early age but that his parents told him a comforting lie – that his grandad had gone travelling – to save his naïve child ears. Braverman, through archive interviews with Kaufman’s parents, portrays this as the reason Kaufman was the way he was. It’s a strange decision to say so confidently that this was what caused Kaufman to crave the attention that spouting misogynistic vitriol got him throughout his career. Covering Kaufman from his childhood to his death from cancer at 35, Braverman weaves together archive interview footage with the likes of Robin Williams and Danny DeVito, the former before his own untimely death, and contemporary interviews with the likes of Kaufman’s girlfriend Lynne Margulies.

We have an obsession in culture in neutering the flaws of our idols. Kaufman is presented as an enigmatic, abrasive genius rather than someone who wanted to cause discomfort to his audience for his own amusement. Braverman’s doc shows the comedian as someone who is always performing, with the lines blurring between where Kaufman ended and his characters began, but for a documentary that wants to dive into what idea created someone as abrasive as Kaufman, it’s surprisingly shallow and only concerned with deifying him furthermore.

There’s an obvious affection for Kaufman from those who were found in the orbit of his life. Braverman covers the infamous wrestling that Kaufman engineered – Kaufman made headlines by betting that no women could beat him in wrestling for $10,000 – but finds a macabre fascination with the actions rather than indict them as the escalation of a comedian who had lost his position as a cast member on SNL due to his unprofessional shenanigans. It’s indicative that Kaufman is at the forefront of so many documentaries – thought they are usually focused on an aspect of his life, such as Jim & Andy, where Jim Carrey’s performance as him was the documentary’s priority – when they are always presenting Kaufman as someone in complete control, struggling to bring anything new to the Kaufman table.

Thank You Very Much: Andy Kaufman
Thank You Very Much: Andy Kaufman (Disney General Entertainment, Getty Images)

With it being 40 years since his death, the interviewees’ memories of Kaufman and his antics have no doubt transformed to become an idealised version of the man. The film is a reminder that the joy of hindsight is a strong one, where someone who caused such turmoil within the recesses of society for a joke is now consistently made out to be a genius 40 years later.  Perhaps he was just that, a genius always in control, and Braverman has no interest in derailing that idea. Kaufman was less of a comedian, more of a prankster; someone who disturbed the status quo everywhere they went. Thank You Very Much doesn’t appear to have anything but simplistic affection for the man that loved upsetting people so much that he would get a kick out of faking arguments with people he had positioned in the audience as plants.

For those who have already been subject to the Kaufman mythology, this perfectly adequate and straightforward documentary presents very little new material other than some previously unseen footage. But for those new to Kaufman, this is a great starting point to learn about the comedian from the mouths of the famous people that he had a profound effect on during his time. Time of which has not been kind to the Kaufman style, where cheap imitations run amok amongst social media and tiktok pranksters. The it’s-just-a-joke-bro crowd can thank the trailblazing Kaufman for inspiring their ridiculousness, but one can’t imagine Kaufman thriving with a modern day audience in a similar way.

Thank You Very Much premiered at the 2023 Venice Film Festival in September. Read our list of films to watch at the 2023 Venice Film Festival and discover the 2023 Venice Immersive Lineup!

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