His gifts as a comic actor are well-known, but who would have thought that Jim Carrey might simultaneously break your heart as easily as he makes you laugh?
It is only one of the accomplishments of “The Truman Show,” the nerviest feature to come out of Hollywood in recent memory, that it gives Carrey the role of his career, the opportunity to make exceptional use of his capacities in a film that is as serious as it is funny.
Adventurous, provocative, even daring, “The Truman Show” has been directed with enviable grace and restraint by Peter Weir, whose deliberate tone is essential to the film’s multiple and almost contradictory successes. “The Truman Show” is emotionally involving without losing the ability to raise sharp satiric questions as well as get numerous laughs, the rare film that is disturbing despite working beautifully within standard industry norms.
If there is a key to this picture’s accomplishment it is the irresistible nature of its carefully worked-out premise, shrewdly conceived by writer Andrew Niccol. “The Truman Show” is concerned with a very particular television program, one whose disconcerting qualities only gradually become completely clear.
The film starts out with a burst of information, running the delicious risk of disorienting us by providing more data than we can quite absorb. Its first shot is a tight close-up of a man in a beret who looks directly at the camera and goes to the heart of the matter: “We’ve become bored with watching actors giving us phony emotions. We’re tired of pyrotechnics and special effects. While the world he inhabits is to some respects counterfeit, there is nothing faked about Truman. No script, no cue cards. It isn’t always Shakespeare, but it’s genuine. It’s a life.”
The speaker is Christof (Ed Harris), later described as the “televisionary” who created “The Truman Show.” Next comes a credit reading “Hannah Gill as Meryl” and a young woman (Laura Linney) who says, “My life is my life is ‘The Truman Show.’ ” She’s followed by “Louis Coltrane as Marlon,” a hearty young man (Noah Emmerich) who insists, “It’s all true, it’s all real. Nothing you see on this show is fake. It’s merely controlled.”
After this buildup, after the card reading “Truman Burbank as himself,” Carrey’s familiar face fills the screen. Like Christof, Truman speaks directly to the camera, but, we slowly realize, he’s under the impression he’s having a completely private moment, playing out a bizarre fantasy of mountain-climbing heroics in the presumed safety of his bathroom mirror. What he can’t see that we can is the small word, “LIVE,” in the corner of the screen. Truman is on the air, the center of a television program revolving around his life, and everyone knows about it but him.
While this rough premise soon becomes clear, the film is savvy enough to dole out the ramifications and specifics of Truman’s situation in artfully spaced doses. Only in bits and pieces do we find out the true dimensions of what has been done to Truman, how it has all been managed, and revealing more than that would spoil the fun.
In the meantime, simultaneously wised-up and in complicity, we become part of the audience watching TV’s “Truman Show,” just a few of the multitudes eavesdropping without shame on his so-called life in the always-sunny community of Seahaven Island, motto “It’s a Nice Place to Live.”
Watching Truman trade pleasantries with Stepford wife Meryl and splitting six-packs with always available buddy Marlon is an experience both amusing and uncomfortable. We may be joining the show on day 10,909 but we’ve entered Truman’s world at a critical juncture. Though his environment is always gee-whiz cheerful and sunny (courtesy of Dennis Gassner’s expert production design and Peter Biziou’s glistening candy-colored cinematography of the real-life Seaside, Fla.), Truman is not completely happy in it. In fact, in ways neither he nor we completely understand at first, his world is threatening to come apart.
It’s hints we see first, hints that don’t immediately make sense. Why is Truman furtively calling Tahiti information? Why is he buying fashion magazines, ostensibly for his wife, only to clandestinely rip apart the photographs for purposes unknown. The poignancy of seeing Truman feeling trapped and desperate, hiding behind a painted-on smile but deeply unsatisfied for reasons he can’t manage to put his finger on, is a classic example of an actor extending himself as far as he can without overreaching.
Carrey tried to push into new territory before, but “The Truman Show” is worlds apart from an unlamented misfire like “The Cable Guy.” It’s hard to imagine another actor as effective as this halest of well-met fellows, someone who can look completely haunted with a what-me-worry smile parked on his face. In the context of this film, Carrey’s trademark high-energy mania plays like the result of the unknowing artificiality of his life, precisely the way someone might get if everyone he knew was secretly more of a co-star than a friend.
In addition to being consistently moving and funny, “The Truman Show,” almost as an aside, makes accurate satiric points about conformity, commercialism, the desire to play god, and what can happen when television, or any other medium, permanently blurs the lines between what’s real and what’s on screen.
Yet despite these subversive underpinnings, what’s perhaps most engaging about “The Truman Show” is the way it still delivers vintage Hollywood satisfactions to an audience. With a beleaguered hero determined to live free or die, “The Truman Show” demonstrates a belief in the indomitability of the human spirit that is as four-square as anything Frank Capra put on screen.
Weir is especially critical to “Truman’s” success. Benefiting from 14 months of prep time (because Carrey had commitments to a pair of other films), Weir created and sustained the essential low-key tone for this project. He also paid special care to the casting (including small but pivotal roles like Natascha McElhone as the woman who haunts Truman’s dreams and Harry Shearer as an especially unctuous TV interviewer).
Like any current film, this venture has precedents, everything from Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone” series to Paul Bartel’s prescient 1965 “Secret Cinema.” But “The Truman Show” has been so carefully and thoughtfully worked out, it’s so much its own film, that viewers will be justified in feeling that they’ve never seen anything quite like it. And how often can you say that in this derivative age?
* MPAA rating: PG, for thematic elements and mild language. Times guidelines: adult subject matter.
‘The Truman Show’
Jim Carrey: Truman Burbank
Laura Linney: Meryl
Noah Emmerich: Marlon
Natascha McElhone: Lauren/Sylvia
Holland Taylor: Truman’s mother
Brian Delate: Truman’s father
Ed Harris: Christof
A Scott Rudin production, released by Paramount Pictures. Director Peter Weir. Producers Scott Rudin, Andrew Niccol, Edward S. Feldman, Adam Schroeder. Executive producer Lynn Pleshette. Screenplay Andrew Niccol. Cinematographer Peter Biziou. Editors William Anderson, Lee Smith. Costumes Marilyn Matthews. Music Burkhard Dallwitz. Production design Dennis Gassner. Art director Richard L. Johnson. Set decorator Nancy Haigh. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.