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The Truman Show

movie review by
Gary Johnson

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The Truman Show is anything but a typical Jim Carrey comedy. Directed by Peter Weir, who also helmed Witness, Dead Poet's Society, and The Year of Living Dangerously, The Truman Show gives us a fantastic situation that, in another director's hands, might have been played as farcical comedy. However, Weir isn't exactly known for his comedies. He built his reputation by directing quiet, spell-binding movies, such as Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave. Likewise, The Truman Show is more quiet and intense than your typical Jim Carrey vehicle. The last time Carrey went this route, The Cable Guy, his usual fans stayed home in droves. However, with The Cable Guy, Carrey played a character so loony that he was scary. In The Truman Show, he plays a guy that everyone loves.

As the advertisements tell us, "Truman Burbank has the feeling he's being watched: He doesn't know how right he is." From the moment he was born, Truman was raised in front of cameras. In fact, his life is a television show--a hugely successful television show with millions of viewers. Every single moment of Truman's life is broadcast live to the world. "Nothing is faked. It's merely controlled," says the show's producer, Christof (Ed Harris, in an outstanding performance). Truman doesn't realize it, but his home town of Seahaven is actually a huge soundstage with 5,000 hidden cameras. It's a perfectly clean, idyllic community with row upon row of tidy white homes, well-manicured lawns, and white picket fences. Everyone in Seahaven is an actor. Even his wife is an actress hired to play a part.

This is a great set up for some comedic revelations as our hero begins to understand his situation, but director Weir and screenwriter Andrew Niccol (who recently made his directorial debut with Gattaca) aren't interested in simply milking the situation for laughs. Instead, they want us to understand how awfully sad Truman really is--and how the television show producers are responsible for his sadness by not allowing him to really live his life. Ironically, however, on the outside, Truman is one of the happiest guys you'll ever meet. He greets his friends (and everyone is his friend) with time-worn homilies: "Good morning! Oh, and in case I don't see you, good afternoon, good evening, and good night!" But Truman's deep unhappiness belies his outer chirpiness.

Occasionally Truman notices that something isn't quite right, as when a spot light falls from the sky and crashes near his home. Where could it have come from? he wonders, as he looks up into the sky (which is actually a painted dome, and the light was a star). And when a storm breaks out while he's on the beach, rain falls in a narrow shaft that only hits Truman. As he paces back and forth, he briefly walks from beneath the rain before it catches up with him again. But Truman tends to accept things at face value. "We accept the reality with which we are presented," says Christof. At the same time, however, Truman longs for more from life. He buys fashion magazines ("For my wife," he tells the clerk) and then cuts out photos, as he tries to piece together a picture of a woman he encountered long ago. And he dreams of vacationing faraway in Fiji--but when he shows up at a travel agency, all the flights are booked.

Truman's situation is horribly sad, for here is a life lived without a single true moment. Every moment in his life has been manufactured. However, with Jim Carrey at the center of movie, the filmmakers sustain a miraculous balance of comedy and pathos. Carrey's casting as Truman is key in making this film work. Without the wildly comic edge to the character, The Truman Show would've become a dangerously melancholy movie, for everything Truman knows and believes is a sham. "The last thing that I would ever do is lie to you," says Truman's best friend, but of course, he's lying--and as he lies, Christof cues the big close-up.

Few other actors could've played this role. (Tom Hanks comes to mind, and it could be argued that The Truman Show is Carrey's chance to become a serious actor, such as Hanks.) Carrey plays a precarious balancing act as he makes us laugh even when we're feeling the sorrow in Truman's life: "Maybe I'm losing my mind, but it feels like the whole world revolves around me," he says. We know Truman sounds like one of those wacko conspiracy mongers, especially as he begins to feel that he's being watched. But we know that he's right.

As much as I enjoyed The Truman Show, I couldn't help but wonder what would've happened if one of the great comedians, Buster Keaton, had made a movie about this same situation. I'm sure Keaton would've provided a richer abundance of gags. Weir gives us bits and pieces of comedy routines, one involving Truman as he draws images on his bathroom mirror with a bar of soap and acts out goofy comic-bookish stories: "Classic Truman," says one of the video cameramen hidden behind the bathroom mirror, filming Truman's every move. But even this scene seems curiously truncated, as if Weir were afraid of letting the comedic scenes take control of the movie. As a result, The Truman Show feels somewhat muted. Don't misunderstand me: The Truman Show is an outstanding movie, but it feels like it could have been a great movie--a movie that we could have talked about in the same breath as Buster Keaton's The General or Harold Lloyd's Safety Last. The Truman Show never really hits that level, but it comes very close. Very close indeed.

[rating: 3½ of 4 stars]

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