First, let us now praise Peter Weir and Scott Rudin for producing a film
rated PG, one suitable for my daughter on her tenth birthday. THE
TRUMAN SHOW had two profanities I can recall, no sex scenes, no
gratuitous violence, and a lot of ideas.
All these elements make me like Jim Carrey more than I used to.
Although my students have talked about them for years, I have never seen
the Ace Ventura movies. I'll admit I rented THE MASK, and got quite a
few laughs out of it. And a student teacher in my film literature class
showed LIAR LIAR. These are solid but minor comedies, thrust into
prominence by our culture's demand for vulgar slapstick. (From what
I've heard about THE CABLE GUY, it's not worth my time even to rent,
though I do like to claim that, as a teacher of film, I am aware of
What causes me to admire THE TRUMAN SHOW even more is that it's not
being hyped as purely a comedy.
Think back to 48 HOURS. (I might better use THE CABLE GUY here, but
haven't seen it!) Wasn't this Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte flick
advertised as a comedy? But didn't its conflict revolve around one of
the most ruthless killers in any film of that year? I remember sitting
in the dark and almost shivering at his heartless violence; I was
unable even to chuckle at the one-liners Murphy lobbed during the more
tense parts of the plot.
Well, THE TRUMAN SHOW is not a comedy, but a heady satire of the
American consciousness, a send-up of the voyeuristic media addicts that
we've become. When the picture opens with a close-up of Truman Burbank
gazing at himself in the mirror of his medicine cabinet, we are pulled
in by the wild imagination of his private monologues. But here's the
rub: we also realize that moments like this are prized, quirky products
of our privacy. One of the reasons this film succeeds is that we are
reminded to hate ourselves, however mildly, whenever we see Truman
photographed through a "button-cam," or through the console of his
sedan. (This is done cleverly, by the way, through lenses with edges
resembling coke bottles.) The eaves-droppers ogling the oblivious
Truman as he proceeds innocently with his life – the waitresses, the two
cops, the guy whose life is lived in his tub – these people are us.
This is one type of "winking" the film does.
Another type involves the placement of products. No, these are not real
products, like the Reese's Pieces used in E.T. Instead, they are
fictional kitchen devices and powdered drinks that Truman's sunny-faced
wife is forever pitching in the direction of one of the hundreds of
cameras hidden around their house. These are self-reflexive winks,
reminding us of the ever-present products that are advertised within the
very texts of our films (not to mention in the fictions of writers
striving for verisimilitude). That these endorsements have nothing to do
with our real lives is stressed in a powerful scene that has Truman
desperately confronting the actress playing his wife.
"It's a life," says the director of this television institution, in the
opening moments of the film. The way in which writer Andrew Niccol and
director Peter Weir make Truman's life realistic is similar to the way
writers make their fantasies seem true. Gabriel Garcia Marquez uses
minute details in his stories. This is the secret of magical realism.
THE TRUMAN SHOW drops in on the title character rummaging through a
trunk containing boyhood memories. We see photos of young Truman with
his father, now supposedly dead. We see Truman burying his nose in a
sweater left behind by a girl named Sylvia (whose cast name is Lauren;
there are endless double and deceitful images at work here). We witness
countless traces of Truman's past, even through flashbacks on the
screens of the world's viewers. In the end, we realize the sanctity that
should be accorded Truman's life, and perhaps feel assured that no, our
society really would not stand by, letting a corporation adopt a baby
and permitting the construction of a set the size of a city, just to
broadcast every second of his life.
One weakness is the superficial handling of Truman's wife when Truman is
truly on to something. Pushed beyond what she deems "professional," the
actress shrieks "Do something!" and soon disappears from the scene.
Another actress is conveniently inserted as a possible love interest.
But wouldn't it have been more realistic to show the small scenes of
loneliness (or maybe relief) felt by Truman as he roamed the house after
his "wife's" desertion?
One test I often apply to comedies is, if it gets a belly-laugh out of
me, the film is a decent comedy. This test is subjective, of course,
but it's just as valid as saying that a short story is good if it makes
you cry, a comment I overheard from a creative writing professor.
Although I only guffawed during THE TRUMAN SHOW, I relished the frequent
funny moments and absolutely loved their intelligence.
>From his sickbed, his voice played over a still shot of himself, Gene
Siskel said this may be a "watershed" movie for Jim Carrey. I agree.
Carrey is no longer just another rubber face. It's the first film of
his that I would show as a solid part of a high school film curriculum.
My daughter is grateful, too, that it is not among the majority of
talked-about films, the PG-13s and Rs which, for the next couple of
years, her parents will not permit her to see.
Copyright © 2000 Mark OHara