Days of Our Lives

The Truman Show
area theaters, starts Friday

The Truman Show is original and brilliant, all right, but it shouldn't be a surprise. Decades of media slavery and constructed artificial nostalgia should have prepared us well for the story of a man who discovers that his whole life has been not real but represented. There are also plenty of shirttail relatives to call on: intrusive reality shows, the tensions between ordinary life and acting in Seinfeld, Murphy Brown, and Larry Sanders, and--best of all--the Ellen finale that placed our favorite lesbian-next-door within the reminiscing context of TV's artificial landscape. As the Disney people would say, we have all been "imagineered" into alternately enjoying or not seeing the difference between artful simulacra and awkward reality.

What distinguishes Peter Weir's The Truman Show is that it takes this theme, crossbreeds it with a neatly defined metaphor, and then leashes that metaphor tightly so it doesn't stray. There have been plenty of ambitious, overdesigned, non-sci-fi fantasy films in recent years--Ma vie en rose (My Life in Pink), Toys, The Handmaid's Tale, or Martha Coolidge's flawed but intriguing Three Wishes--that saw the '50s as a vision of colorful conformity. But Truman is far more confident than any of these; it's note-perfect. As a parable it's already been compared to Forrest Gump, but it's more like a thriller, a paranoid cross between Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Game.

Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) is a happy-go-lucky, middling insurance salesman in the sunny, never-troubling town of Seahaven (the actual architect-planned "new community" of Seaside, Florida). Little has darkened Truman's life except when he saw his father drown on a sailing excursion, and ever since he's been afraid to cross over water. This is convenient, since the "ocean" beyond his "town" is part of the world's largest movie set (covered by an enormous dome, visible from space), and Truman's life has since birth been one long sitcom/soap opera/documentary, loved by millions. Everyone he knows is really an actor, and his life/program is entering its third decade.

Weir's conceit, following the sharp script by Andrew Niccol (Gattaca), requires Truman to seem so cheery and naive that he has never questioned his existence. This is a stretch, but the cartoony '40s-style outfits, the fake ads inserted into conversation, and Carrey's own attitude pull it off, keeping the focus on innocence that's about to be betrayed. How Truman figures out that he's the only genuine person in Seahaven is a matter of accumulated suspicions and evidence discovered, such as the bland radio station that goes on the blink and begins sending Truman the TV director's instructions for upcoming shots. And when Truman puts two and two together, Weir's characteristic subtlety doesn't underline the moment--which makes this major plot shift more apparent in retrospect than as a dramatic peak.

More movies should have such problems. Weir's attention to detail and his fascinated empathy with this initially odd, eventually enraged hero are substantial. At the same time, so is his satire: As Truman moves around in his life, the frame is frequently edged with the ring of one of the 5,000 cameras in Seahaven. And the story steps out of Truman's cocoon often enough to show both some representative fans (complete with collectible paraphernalia) and the wizard behind the curtain, Christof (Ed Harris), whose wicked brainstorm this whole sham has been. So, because we see Christof cueing the music in real time to make the audience pick up the required emotion, we could be armed against falling for the emotion that only Truman is feeling for real. But the music (and the lighting, the friendship, the plot twists--indeed, the whole package) is so persuasive in the customary sense that it's easy to let it lead the way. And that way is along the path to Disney's new park, VirtuaLand.

This is all well and good, and the acting (especially the acting of acting, such as Laura Linney's performance as Truman's "wife") is fun to watch. But The Truman Show is a satire--and, as such, who or what is it mad at? What does it uphold as noble or true? Given the various clues in sunny Seahaven ("Who Needs Europe?" reads one headline), the retrograde visions of conservatives--a Quaylevillian social dream--might be one target.

But Weir saves his deepest nudges for last. Having shown us a character trapped between seeming and being, Weir leads him to an ambiguous but hopeful ending. Wackiness in check, his infamous vulnerability more visible, Carrey is a sweet guy who's found his sweet revenge--he's more like Jimmy Stewart than ever. Then, almost as an afterthought, things get cold and angry in the last scene. If we don't feel guilty after all this laughing, we're even worse media stooges than Weir and Niccol take us for.

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