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The Truman Show

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: The Truman Show

Starring: Jim Carrey, Laura Linney
Director: Peter Weir
Rated: PG
RunTime: 115 Minutes
Release Date: June 1998
Genres: Comedy, Drama

*Also starring: Noah Emmerich, Holland Taylor, Ed Harris, Brian Delate, Una Damon, Paul Giamatti, Philip Baker Hall, John Pleshette

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

"Cue the sun... I am the creator..." announces Christof (Ed Harris), the director of television's longest running drama. Media bigwigs often have inflated views of themselves, but this guy seems to be going over the top. Is he bananas? Perhaps. On second thought, maybe WE are; we who spend so many hours each day watching the tube, carrying its fashions, its dialogue, its concepts of hip to such an extent that you can't blame those who put the images on the TV sets from thinking that they're gods.

More American homes have TVs than baths. Given that the tube outnumbers the tub, obviously television has a mighty big influence on us. The extensive authority of the home screen is the focus of Peter Weir's movie, written by Andrew Niccol and starring Jim Carrey in the second serious role of his checkered career.

"Truman" is about Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), an unwanted baby who even in the fetal stage has been adopted by a corporation--a TV network company. Conceivably no better example of dramatic irony exists in any film ever made: The entire world knows that Truman's life--his friends, his wife, his job--is fraudulent, a big setup designed by Christof for the amusement of the entire earth. In Christof's wildly imaginative project, the network honcho constructs the world's largest stage set: an island peopled entirely by professional actors (with the exception of Truman, who is the only true man in the picture), antiseptic houses, an artificial ocean with occasional bursts of synthetic rain, 5,000 hidden cameras situated on the dashboard of Truman's car, on street lamps, and on the persons of the actors, a counterfeit insurance company which employs Truman and pays him (for all we know) in play money which is good only on the island. Even the sun, the moon, the sky and the clouds are man-made. No wonder, then, that Christof considers himself The Creator to a greater extent than even the producers and directors of blockbuster shows like Seinfeld and I Love Lucy. Truman unwittingly becomes the best-known face in the entire world, though he is the last to know this.

Like Sophocles's Oedipus who kills his father and marries his mother, only slowly realizing what he has done, Truman gradually and ever so overdue becomes increasingly aware of his condition. As the clues drop--first a mysterious stage lamp falls to the sidewalk in front of him, then he runs into his father who was allegedly drowned in a boating accident for which Truman was partly responsible--Truman bit-by-bit loses his all-American nice-guy demeanor. He becomes imperceptibly suspicious and angry with the realization that he is being manipulated by outside forces. During this time-- which forms the bulk of the 104-minute film--we in the audience who know more than the title character find quite a bit of humor in the proceedings, humor which only rarely shows itself as typical Jim Carrey shtick. In one scene Carrey's wife Meryl (Laura Linney) breaks into a conversation she is having with her husband to deliver a cocoa commercial, while in another instance she urges Truman to throw out his broken lawn mower and buy a new one (mentioning the brand he should favor). She announces a macaroni and cheese dinner with all the ecstasy of an actress delivering a 30-second commercial, and props up boxes of cereal on the kitchen table so that the brand name is seen by the worldwide audience. Much of the waggery revolves around attempts by the actors on the Eden-like island to dissuade Truman from leaving it, as this would be disastrous for the show. In a flashback, he tells his fifth-grade teacher that he'd like to be an explorer like Magellan, but the teacher responds, "You're too late: there's nothing left to explore." When Truman makes a mad dash for parts outside the control of the TV station, he is stopped; at one point by an "accident" at a nuclear station and at another by the mere presence of water which he has been afraid to cross since the "drowning death" of his father. When he visits a travel agent (also an actor) to book a flight to Fiji, where his college girl friend allegedly now lives, the agent assures him that there are no flights for at least a month. Posters around the office warn "this can happen to you" (featuring a plane hit by lightning) and urge travelers to take out large insurance policies because of the threat of airline terrorists and street gangs in distant locations.

If you can find more than one allusion to previous Carrey movies, you're good. The one evident reference occurs when Meryl is being driven by her husband at breakneck speed, asks "Can you slow down?" and gets the "Liar, Liar" answer, "Yes, I can."

Written by Andrew Niccol, who created the spirited sci-fi drama "Gattaca," "Truman" displays a great deal of the scripter's imagination. No other film in memory uses the concept of a human being who has spent the entire thirty years of his life in a plastic bubble to this extent or carries out the fanciful narrative in such a clever, appealing, and well- performed manner. We are led to believe that Truman could indeed be fooled into thinking his plastic existence, this shadow of a life on the wall of a Platonic cave, is the equivalent of a real, free-will experience.

Director Peter Weir has done a bangup job with Niccol's script with the invaluable help of Dennis Gassner's precious production design to convince us that Truman had no choice other than to stay on the island. The father's "drowning" gives him a phobia of crossing water, the travel agent a fear of flying, and his own wife and especially his best friend Marlon (Noah Emmerich) the suggestion that there really is no need to leave this paradise on earth. When one actress, Lauren (Natascha McElhone) takes pity on Truman and tries to reveal the truth, she is quickly spirited away and when he tries to go to Chicago, the bus is unable to start.

If you accept "The Truman Story" as one of the choicest recent examples of imaginative fiction, you will indeed have a wonderful experience in its throes. If however you try to decode it for The Meaning of Life as some critics have attempted, you will be disappointed, because as satire it does not work. Are its creators trying to say that television encourages voyeurism and destroys the celebrities it creates? If so, there is no reason to believe that the world's attention can be riveted on this very ordinary man living an uneventful life, one which, in fact, the producers want him to continue in that any dramatic changes in his nature could expose the conspiracy and end the 30-year-old show. Are its creators trying to say, as Christof declares, that we accept the reality of the world with which we're presented and that we prefer to live out our lives following the usual conventions, they misfire here as well. Truman is indeed determined to leave the island he knows so well but is prevented by the force--in some cases the traumas in his psyche, in others the artificially created violence of nature, in still others the barricades set up by "police." Forget about Major Meaning. This is not "Network" but a highly enjoyable romp featuring the very talented Jim Carrey, who fulfills Weir's promise as the best actor around for Truman's role. No other performer could as well have portrayed his determination coupled with vulnerability that allows us to suspend disbelief and enter one of the movie industry's finest creations of an artificial world. The great Italian playwright, Luigi Pirandello, would be most pleased by Weir and Niccol's take on the relationship between art and life.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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