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Could any film live up to the thunderously orchestrated pre-release hype generated by The Truman Show? “The movie of the decade…One of the most spectacularly original American movies in years” (Esquire); “…a miraculous movie. It will rattle both your head and heart…” (Newsweek). In truth, Peter Weir’s visionary dramatic comedy is not notably original, and audiences will emerge from it with heads and hearts unscathed. But The Truman Show is, indeed, an uncommonly entertaining, immaculately crafted film, an oasis of wit in the desert of Hollywood’s summer puerility.
Director Weir’s Australian and American movies are linked by the overarching theme of individuals struggling to adapt to unfamiliar circumstances. His protagonists, nearly always Anglo-Saxons, are thrust into situations and environments that challenge their narrow belief systems: Picnic at Hanging Rock’s sequestered schoolgirls set loose in the Australian wilds, The Last Wave’s lawyer troubled by Aboriginal doomsday warnings, The Year of Living Dangerously’s journalist trying to make sense of Indonesia’s political and spiritual ambiguities, Witness’ disillusioned big-city cop hiding out in an Amish community, Fearless’ air disaster survivor alienated by his precrash existence.
At first glance, insurance salesman Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) seems to be the antithesis of Weir’s fish out of water. His comforting pond is Seahaven, an idealized oceanside community of pastel neo-Victorian dwellings inhabited by cheerful Norman Rockwell neighbors. Catered to in these sunny surroundings by his perpetually upbeat wife Meryl (Laura Linney), Truman embodies the American dream.
Or does he? A series of unsettling events beclouds Truman’s earthly paradise (and allies him with Weir’s other protagonists). He recognizes a homeless man as his dead father, killed in a boating accident that left Truman terrified of water. He overhears mysterious radio transmissions intended for his co-workers and friends. A spotlight falls from the sky, barely missing him. These and other occurrences gradually induce 30-year-old Truman to realize that he is (and has been since birth) the unwitting star of a popular round-the-clock, live, and unedited television documentary/soap opera, surrounded by actors in a gigantic domed set outfitted with 5,000 hidden cameras. Christof (Ed Harris), the show’s director, tries to prevent Truman from discovering the truth about his situation. When this effort fails, he incorporates Truman’s awakening into the program’s plot. But Truman is determined to leave Meryl and escape from this synthetic Eden in quest of Lauren (Natascha McElhone), a rebellious young actress who was forcibly removed from Seahaven and has allegedly taken refuge in Fiji.
The Truman Show is a stunning production, impeccably fabricated by a resourceful team of designers, art directors, set decorators, and costumers. Seaside, a 90-acre planned community on the Florida Panhandle, doubles for the fictional Seahaven; this postmodern gingerbread town, developed in 1980, has the stylized, slightly surreal aura of a sound-stage set. Peter Biziou’s camera-work brims with ingenious touches. Because every moment of Truman’s waking and sleeping life is covertly filmed, we observe much of the action through strategically placed surveillance cameras, including one hidden in Truman’s ring and another in Meryl’s necklace. Biziou employs a variety of lensessome with oval masks and others that produce distorted imagesto convince us that Seahaven is indeed a vast television studio, a plush prison where Truman, a real toad in an artificial garden, exists for the delectation of television viewers.
Less manic than in his cartoonish, anything-goes farces, Carrey restrains himself to become a credible, unaffected Truman. The comic actor’s deceptive, faux-naif countenancethe boyish façade of a cunning alien impersonating a solid citizen to evade captureis well-suited to the film’s illusionist devices. Unlike Truman, the people around him are supposed to be acting; their occasional character-breaking lapses into over-emoting, bewilderment, and frustration cleverly dovetail with Weir’s Pirandellian strategies. Harris, sporting wire-rimmed glasses and a skullcap, is eerily effective as the show’s omniscient director, an enigmatic figure who infuses the narrative with undertones of religious allegory.
New Zealander Andrew Niccol wrote The Truman Show screenplay prior to making his directorial debut with the futuristic Gattaca. Although his work is being trumpeted as innovative, it draws on a series of earlier films with similar concerns. The most notable is Paul Bartel’s classic 1969 short, The Secret Cinema, in which a young woman senses that her life is being clandestinely filmeda fear starkly confirmed when she enters a crowded theater to find an audience howling derisively at her most embarrassing private moments. Recall, too, the pseudo-interactive tele-drama featured in Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451, in which on-screen characters solicit advice from viewers to make them feel like members of the program’s “family.” PBS’s An American Family and MTV’s The Real World employ multiple cameras to infiltrate everyday life; David Holtzman’s Diary and Dadetown mimic documentary techniques to persuade us that we are watching snippets of reality rather than fictions. The plight of individuals discovering that they are surrounded by counterfeit beings has been explored in numerous films, among them Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Blade Runner.
Niccol introduces and juggles a variety of well-worn themesthe intrusiveness of the mass media, predestination, the American dream as nightmarebut has little of consequence to say about them. The screenplay raises some provocative questions that it refuses to ponder. Aren’t the actors who inhabit Truman’s world equally imprisoned? What motivates them to abandon their own lives to become part of Truman’s fictive existence? Some of Niccol’s symbolism is heavy-handed, especially the character names (Truman is a “true man”; Christofduh!). In the final half-hour, the narrative narrows to an extended chase as Truman tries to break out of Seahaven. As in Catch-22, an implausibly hopeful denouement nullifies the movie’s most sobering implications.
Although neither startlingly original nor brow-wrinklingly profound, The Truman Show is consistently delightful, filled with lovely comic flourishes: the sun and moon that Christof cues on command, the awkwardly integrated product placements that punctuate Truman’s daily saga, the actors playing surgeons and bus drivers who prove incapable of performing the duties of their putative professions, the Truman Bar where fans gather to watch the program, the magical trompe l’oeil surprise at the film’s climax. Less than a masterpiece but miles ahead of the competition, The Truman Show is as good as Hollywood filmmaking gets these days. It might not rock your world, but for 102 minutes it will make your world a livelier place. CP