The Truman Show
Director: Peter Weir. Cast: Jim Carrey, Ed Harris, Laura Linney, Noah Emmerich, Natascha McElhone, Holland Taylor, Brian Delate, Philip Baker Hall, Harry Shearer, Una Damon, O-Lan Jones. Screenplay: Andrew Niccol.

Peter Weir's The Truman Show is about a man who, at the very moment he feels the need to test the boundaries of his life, discovers that his whole existence has very concrete limits and little chance of escape. The Truman Show mimics the life of its hero, then, in being itself somewhat of a closed system; the picture deserves high praise for both the intellectual rigor of its themes and the broad accessibility of its execution, but it proscribes for itself some narrative boundaries over which it should but does not step. Weir's film makes good, though, on its aspirations to true artistry. The Truman Show is daring, funny/scary, and always interesting, despite the sizable gaps on its canvas that the script and the director leave disappointingly blank.

The opening credits, announcing "Truman Burbank as Himself" and "Created by Christof," describe the "Truman Show" watched on television by a global audience, not the movie Weir and his colleagues have made around it. Thus, from the outset, we are posited as viewers of the ultimate in "reality television," a man's life rendered in a 24-hour visual document of which he himself is entirely unaware. Truman's neighbors, classmates, co-workers, and even family members are all actors on a mission to simulate a "normal" suburban life in picket-fenced Sea Haven, California.

Through weather machines, building fašades, and more than 5,000 cameras (some as small as shirt buttons), every moment of Truman's life is ostensibly rendered unedited and in real time—more later on the "ostensibly" part. Meanwhile, our whole world of boob-tubers is enraptured, some so much so that they sleep with Truman's channel programmed on their TV's. Christof, played with mercurial gravity by Ed Harris, has devised all sorts of devices for preserving the integrity and continuation of his project. He ousts cast members who wish to expose the truth (or is it falsity?) of Truman's life. He scripts the death of Truman's "father" in a freak drowning accident so Truman will develop a potent hydrophobia killing any impulse he gets to move from the island of Sea Haven. Christof even gets around the revenue problems posed by the impossibility of commercial breaks by savvily planting ads and product placements all over Sea Haven's billboards, in the residents' homes, and, most prominently, in the lovely hands of Truman's "wife" Meryl (Laura Linney).

Adhering to an old edict of the theater, the one that states drama begins on the day something goes wrong, Truman leaves for work one morning only to see a 1,000-watt light projecter fall from the sky before his feet. During his commute, the radio (also commandeered by Christof's team) announces how a defective plane flying over the area shed unexpected debris all over Sea Haven. Truman's perplexity is therefore tided over, but enough mishaps follow that he begins to question the reality of everything and everyone around him. "I think I've stumbled into something big," he whispers to his best friend Marlon (Noah Emmerich), and, to prove his point, he claps his hands loudly in the convenience store where they are speaking. No one reacts. Sea Haven begins to look more and more like Stepford.

Jim Carrey's occupation of the Truman role is a welcome risk from the comic's typical whirlwind of tics, grimaces, and scatology; his performance here has a plastic simplicity perfect for the role. Carrey's face proves almost as expressive in moments of slow realization as it usually does in his episodes of rubber-muscled contortionism. I suspect more and more that we all lost out by not having Carrey alive during the silent era, but his presence in this speaking role is energetic and involving, moving us more than we might reasonably have anticipated.

Of course, we are well-challenged to dissociate Carrey from his well-hyped clownish persona, but, in casting him, Weir has used his star's particular brand and degree of notoriety to enrich the theme of fame and its costs that The Truman Show's script cleverly sustains. As a major star of late-90's entertainment, Carrey is a figure who already exists in a world of permanent scrutiny and invasions of privacy. Moreover, for all of his mugging tendencies, his exhibitionism seems to mask a seldom-revealed inner world we might like to investigate; he fills the role of Truman more tantalizingly than a similarly over-exposed icon like, say, Madonna might have. We can more easily imagine him rather than her entering a state of depression at discovering his most "hidden" moments are broadcast to an adoring, far-flung audience.

Weir's other casting choices are similarly shrewd, especially the deployment of Linney as Truman's wife. Competent but forgettable in throwaway projects like Primal Fear and Congo, Linney has a pleasant, utterly unmysterious surface that Truman has no reason not to trust. Her bland appeal is strikingly contrasted with the dark luminescence of Natascha McElhone (Mrs. Dalloway, Surviving Picasso), who appears in a few key scenes as an actress who tries her best to make Truman aware of the fraudulence around him. She exists in the clouds of Truman's inner dreamworld ever after, and McElhone's large eyes and bronze skin are perfect for a character meant to haunt Truman's psyche and to puncture the pastel fakery of Sea Haven's design.

More can be said extolling The Truman Show, particularly regarding Peter Biziou's cinematography, which gives each little camera on Christof's gigantic set a unique, authentic perspective, and about Dennis Gassner's art direction, as inventive and eye-popping as his Oscar-winning, similarly metatheatrical work in 1991's Bugsy. But, as with much of The Truman Show, these worthy points of craftsmanship primarily serve to mount the world designed around Truman. The film's greatest weakness is its own myopic fascination with the internal world of Sea Haven, eliding crucial details about how this show is seen in the outside world, who watches it, and what it means to them.

The script, by Gattaca writer-director Andrew Niccol, has several parallels to a famous short story by Ursula K. Le Guin called "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas." In that tale, an idyllic seaside community not unlike Sea Haven maintains a strange, terrible, contingent relationship with a child locked in a windowless, unclean cell in the basement of a municipal building. Unschooled and malnourished, the child is blind, mute, and without companionship, but a cruel cosmos demands the child's abject misery in exchange for the unthreatened bliss of Omelas' residents.

Truman Burbank, though in less extreme circumstances and inside a less cynical narrative, is also a figure trapped in a specific role (literally a role, as the "Truman Burbank as Himself" suggests the stylized actorliness of his own behavior) and deprived of self-awareness. However, the crucial element that supplies the ethics and the conflict in Le Guin's story—the incredible personal stakes that Omelas' citizens have in the imprisoned child's despair—has no parallel in The Truman Show, which offers only a confused and broken outline of how Christof's viewership responds to Truman's plight, or why they tune in at all.

At irregular intervals of ten or fifteen minutes, we get a few glimpses of audience members watching "The Truman Show" in homes, bars, and workplaces. Two garage attendants, complaining that Truman's sexual encounters with Meryl are always disguised with discreet camerawork and romantic music, communicate to us that "The Truman Show" is not, as we may previously have believed, completely devoid of crafting and editing. Indeed, as the film progresses, a key ingredient in Christof's production is the careful determining of events in Truman's life: he is supplied with a new love interest, prevented from leaving the island, etc.

Such clear dictation of Truman's movements mean that the world cannot be watching the "documentary" phenomenon which "The Truman Show" announces itself to be. What, then, are they searching for when they switch their dials? Journalists, executives, and other voices in the movie describe "The Truman Show" as an "inspriation" to its viewers, but what exactly is inspiring about honesty and normalcy when they are produced by a television producer's machinations? To be fair, Christof himself observes several times that Truman himself—"True-man"—is unimpeachably real, so even if his circumstances are a grand-scale marionette show, his responses are natural and unfiltered. Actually, a supreme irony of the story is that Christof offers that fact as a defense of his project, while Truman eventually cites it, once he has seen through his surroundings, as evidence in his own case for physical and mental emancipation. Nonetheless, The Truman Show is rather hamstrung in attempting an essay on fame and privacy that examines only the condition of the gazed-on, not the gazers.

Even more puzzling to me was the instance of the convenience store patrons' unresponsiveness to Truman's outburst, or a similar incident where Truman swats a painter in a building lobby and the painter doesn't flinch. Doesn't the verisimilitude of Christof's design necessarily suffer—indeed, virtually expose itself—through such improbably unreactive moments? Christof comes across in Niccol's script and in Harris' interpretation as too much of a control-monger to allow such disruptive and potentially revealing elements into his project. Yes, he might be playful and risky enough to name Meryl and Marlon after two of the late 20th-century's most famous actors . . . but would he really allow an item as prominent as Truman and Meryl's wedding photo to bear unmissable evidence of the ceremony's falseness?

Though I hold these reservations about the narrowness of The Truman Show's scope, they are essentially pleas for a longer, fuller exposition of its story; thus, they offer implicit praise of a movie that provokes such thought, even such disputation. Weir's greatest popular successes, Witness and Dead Poets Society, were bogus, overly serious outings with almost none of the emotional richness they claimed for themselves. Therefore, it is quite rewarding to see Weir's gifts as a craftsman attached to a script that mostly fulfills its own ideological ambitions. The Truman Show never sufficiently settles on the details of its own central plot device, but the reach of its ideas and its energy in tackling most of them make the film one that we all benefit from tuning into. B+


Academy Award Nominations:
Best Director: Peter Weir
Best Supporting Actor: Ed Harris
Best Original Screenplay: Andrew Niccol

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Director: Peter Weir
Best Actor (Drama): Jim Carrey
Best Supporting Actor: Ed Harris
Best Screenplay: Andrew Niccol
Best Original Score: Burkhard Dallwitz & Philip Glass

Other Awards:
National Board of Review: Best Supporting Actor (Harris; also cited for Stepmom)
European Film Awards: Screen International Award
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Director; Best Original Screenplay; Best Production Design (Dennis Gassner)
Satellite Awards: Best Production Design

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