The laziest thing about biopics is that they tend to neglect establishing what’s so special about their subject matter, simply because they happen to be about a famous person. The abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock, who had an acclaimed film made about his life in 2000, Pollock, starring and directed by Ed Harris, may have been an alcoholic, but so what? Sure, Harris has intensely detailed scenes showing him painting, but we never get a sense of why we should care about this particular drunk. How is his story different from that of any other conflicted and depressed artist, other than the fact that Pollock’s paintings sold?
Director Milos Forman made a similar mistake with Man on the Moon, his film biography of the prankish comedian and actor Andy Kaufman. Despite Jim Carrey’s amazing performance as Kaufman, the movie is little more than a greatest hits package, jumping from one notable incident after another without any particular insight into its subject. For those who knew nothing of Kaufman, Man on the Moon would probably be interesting and create interest to look further into his life. But for those who were familiar with his antics beyond his character on Taxi, the movie is useless.
Kaufman’s penchant for sincerity via complete disingenuousness, deliberately alienating the audience who had come to see his stock impressions and characters, was only hinted at in Man on the Moon. It removed the gravity and dark humor in the scenes that suggested his death may have been a practical joke.
Surely, Shadow Billionaire, Alexis Spraic’s documentary about the 1995 death of DHL magnate Larry Hillblom and the legal squabbling that occurred over his will, would have amused Kaufman. In fact, Shadow Billionaire gives us a better sense of Kaufman’s mindset than all of Man on the Moon. Hillblom was the Howard Hughesian type of rich guy, preferring secrecy and internal confusion within his company, while still handling everyone around him as if they were marionettes. He was a nerdy white man hiding on the island of Saipan, far enough from the US so that he could avoid the press and engage in whatever lascivious behavior he chose to — undetected.
Unfortunately, Spraic falls into the Pollock trap for the first ½ an hour of Shadow Billionaire. This is true throughout this portion of the film, other than illustrating some standard eccentricities, such as the fact that he didn’t have a pilot’s license but continued to fly prop planes that weren’t in great condition, which was ultimately the cause of his death. The movie isn’t helped by the presence of a noxious, self-satisfied reporter, a so-called expert on the Hillblom case, who spends all of his screen time grandstanding and making meaningless pronouncements. (He tells us that Hillblom’s life was defined by the three C’s, “Cash, Crime, and Cunt.”) But once the reporter mostly drops off the scene and the conspiracies start to settle in with the devious deeds of Hillblom’s former business partners and Hillblom’s tendency to, uh, cross-pollinate with very young [virgin] girls in poor Asian countries, like Vietnam and the Philippines, Shadow Billionaire becomes intensely involving. We learn details like the fact that Larry didn’t use condoms, but was still concerned about disease. So post-coital, he would make sure he poured iodine on his penis to cleanse it. These details aren’t just bizarre and foolish, they’re exactly the kind of removed-from-reality thinking that tells you who Hillblom was. It’s obvious that he would die in plane crash. He claimed that since he’d already survived one crash, the chances of another one were infinitesimal; he only worried about protection after the fact.
Once the audience has this insight, the hole Larry left in his will — not accounting for offspring — would then make perfect sense. But he had to have known what he was doing, because he was also a lawyer, and was specifically responsible for drafting and ratifying a Saipan law (he was an honorary judge for the occasion) that stated that illegitimate children could make a claim on a will. Not only that, Hillblom’s body was never found. The other two dead passengers aboard the plane were accounted for, and so DNA testing became impossible. Throughout Shadow Billionaire, the viewer has the distinct sensation that at any moment Larry could show up in court, shocking the lawyers, the judge, and the press, and start laughing at all the financial pettiness. It’s the kind of gambit that would have made Andy Kaufman proud.