“Sayonara” to Seinfeld and hello to The Truman Show, a movie – and a great movie, by the way – about a television series in which the “selfishness, self-absorption, immaturity and greed” that Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer were slammed for in the last episode don’t exist. Except behind the scenes. Jim Carrey has the role of his career as Truman Burbank, the unwitting star of a TV show that has trained 5,000 hidden cameras on him since his birth thirty years ago. Everyone in Truman’s life – parents, lovers, best friend, wife – is an actor. Truman’s seemingly idyllic world on the island of Seahaven is really a giant, dome-encased studio controlled by I Christof (Ed Harris), a beret-wearing director who has made his name as a I televisionary by invading Truman’s privacy seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day. Thanks to the global audience that hangs on Truman’s every move, his life is a cruel joke, with Truman the only one not in on it.
Here is a movie that could have failed in so many ways: sinking from the dead weight of surreal pretension or dissipating into the thin air of sitcom farce or soggy soap opera. Instead, The Truman Show finds a near-miraculous balance of humor and feeling in the keen intelligence of the script by Andrew Niccol (Gattaca) and the prodigal inventiveness of Dead Poets Society director Peter Weir (Picnic at Hanging Rock, Witness and Fearless) at his very best.
Then there is Jim Carrey, the clown who’d do anything — dumb or dumber — for a laugh, including talk out of his butt and emerge from the birth canal of a hippo. Carrey has taken risks before: Look at The Cable Guy, a failed dark comedy that plumbed the violence at the root of his manic art. In The Truman Show, Carrey takes his boldest step yet simply by laying back and playing for the nuance of a scene, not just the nuttiness. Does that mean Carrey isn’t funny? Hardly. He and the character make a snug comic fit as Truman contorts his rubber face in the mirror, leaves his picket-fence-perfect house for work, smooches with his wife, Meryl (Laura Linney), and greets the neighbors with his toothiest grin. “Good morning,” he says, beaming. “And in case I don’t see ya, good afternoon, good evening and good night.”
So far, so Carrey. It’s hard not to laugh at the camera’s intrusion into Truman’s daily routine, or at the fired cast members who try to crash back into the show (one by parachute), or at the “Free Truman” movement being organized on the outside by Lauren (Natascha McElhone), the banished actress who once played Truman’s high school sweetie and fell for him for real, or especially at the way Truman’s friends and co-workers have to sneak product plugs into their conversation, since there are no commercial breaks on the show. Passers-by push Truman against billboards. His wife touts a new cocoa. His best friend, Marlon (Noah Emmerich), carries a six-pack, making sure the brand name is visible to the hidden lens.
Delightfully droll stuff. And Carrey cunningly portrays Truman as sweetly naive, not off-puttingly stupid. That way we don’t lose our rooting interest in Truman, even when he fails to notice that the key figures in his life, including pal Marlon and wife Meryl, are named after famous actors. It’s only when the puppet finally feels the tug at his strings that the film moves to a deeper level and the laughs begin to catch in our throats.
Weir shows a mastery of tone as he shifts the film from acute social satire to an often penetrating meditation on the forces that control our existence. As Truman discerns the daily patterns that bind him — don’t try this at home or you might think you’re trapped in your own TV show — he also works up the courage to defy them. Childhood memories of his father’s drowning (staged by Christof) have kept Truman from crossing Seahaven’s bridge to the world outside. Now, with Meryl in tow, he drives off, only to be stopped by Christof’s guards. Harris is a marvel as the self-proclaimed creator who barks orders from his video heaven. Meryl, panicked by Truman’s rebellion, cries out to Christof, “I can’t work this way — it’s not professional.” Christof responds by dumping her from the show. Truman must not escape. Ratings are at stake.
In the film’s most wrenching scene, Truman pours his heart out to Marlon, his trusted friend since grade school. Emmerich, a fresh new talent, invests this good-natured beer guzzler with a mesmerizing edge of danger. Weir never lets us inside the thoughts of Marlon or the other hired hands on the show: Are they appalled by their manipulation of Truman or willing to crush his feelings for fame and a fat paycheck? There is, however, no doubt about the impact of the sham on Truman, and eloquent stillness as he reacts to Truman’s betrayal is quietly devastating. Carrey triumphs in a hilarious and heartfelt performance that reveals an uncommon sensitivity and grace. The question is: Can audiences stand the shock?
If not, it’s their loss. The bogus buzz around Hollywood is that The Truman Show will prove to be too smart and too small-scale for its own box-office good. Screw that. Even the crunch of a giant lizard or the deep impact of Armageddon can’t stomp out something this unique and unforgettable. Go, Truman.