Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

The Truman Show

Grade : A+ Year : 1998 Director : Peter Weir Running Time : 1hr 43min Genre : , ,
Movie review score

Like so many films I’ve reviewed recently in my Movie a Week column, “The Truman Show” is about an artificial world, and the protagonists’ attempts to pull back the reality of that world. There’s also a hint of Kafka in the character of Truman Burbank, as he begins to see the scope of his predicament, and question the world he lives in.

It starts with a satellite that falls from the sky. Well, actually, it’s a light from the enormous soundstage designed to be Seahaven. Truman is the star of his own life…literally. Born on television 30 years ago, Truman is the star of a 24/7 television show called, of course, “The Truman Show.” The catch is, he doesn’t know it. Over the years, the producers- including show creator Christof (Ed Harris)- have come up with various ways to keep him unaware of his situation. They drown his father when he was younger to make him afraid of the water. They made him scared of dogs. They wrote him a good job, a lovely wife, and a loving circle of friends and family.

The only things they didn’t create was Truman himself. True, they helped script the direction of his life, but the man himself is the genuine article, and that in itself will become the show’s eventual undoing. Free will is a dangerous thing.

Peter Weir’s film, in a way, is a genuine satire about the world we live in, especially since “reality television” has become the dominant form of entertainment in this ultra-hyper media age. But those shows- in their way- are no less scripted than “The Truman Show” is. But Weir’s film works better as fantasy, parable even, in a way; a year later, Ron Howard did his own jab at the coming wave of “real tv” with his “EdTV,” which looked much deeper- and more real- at modern media fixation on celebrity.

But Andrew Niccol’s incisive screenplay for this film is a true original, and eleven years later, it still has genuine bite thanks to Weir’s masterful direction and a central performance by Jim Carrey that still rates as a milestone in his career. As a comic performer, Carrey has never held as much interest to me as he has as a unique blend of movie star and character actor- how else can you explain his virtuoso performances in his films as varied as “The Mask,” “Batman Forever” (as the Riddler), “Man on the Moon,” “Dr. Suess’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?” True, his box-office muscle comes from his rubber-faced comic turns, but his durability in his career has come from the challenges he’s allowed himself in working with adventurous talents like Weir, “Man on the Moon’s” Milos Forman, and “Eternal Sunshine’s” Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman.

In Truman, Carrey finds a comfortable balance between the high comedy of his comic persona and the deeply-rooted psychological depths of his more serious turns. A lot of that is a tribute to Weir, whose career has taken many turns in subject and style (see “Gallipoli,” “Master and Commander,” “Fearless,” “Witness,” and “The Year of Living Dangerously”), but as we’ve seen in recent years, Carrey is the real deal as an actor, capable of tugging on our heartstrings as easily as he tickles our funnybone.

And Truman is his most enduring character- his appeal never aging- as he sees the world he knows fall apart around him. His marriage to Meryl (Laura Linney, in an early performance that signaled the tour de force performer to come) is the sort of “too good to be true” fantasy destined to be casuality #1, especially with his brief moments with Sylvia (Natascha McElhone)- who tried to warn him of the reality of his life before being kicked off the show- fresh in his mind. His friendship with Marlon (Noah Emmerich) is made of stronger stuff, but Emmerich isn’t afraid of showing the cynicism in this paycheck friendship with some subtle glances and sly wit. As he discovers the reality of his life, the more we like him. The more real he seems.

But whereas Kafka’s protagonists had only tragedy in their future, Truman offers hope. True, as he gives his old life the old heeve-ho with his popular catchphrase (“In case I don’t see ya, good afternoon, good evening, and good night.”), with Christof (who Harris plays with sympathy and God-like determination) and the world looking on, it’s not the type of hope his life was forseen to give when the show began 30 years ago. In fact, it’s one that’s more profound, more inspiring, as Truman takes his first brave steps into a world unknown to him. We know- like Christof- that it can be a crueler place than the one he created for Truman, but like his devoted fans, we can’t help but cheer as he fearlessly looks to discover it for himself.

Maybe Christof should have just stuck with creating an entire world he could control. It’s a lot safer than leaving one element of it to chance. But where’d be the fun in that?

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