In the midst of the ludicrous national episode just past, it became clear that Americans were far more interested in the fictional fate of Jerry Seinfeld and his pals than in their actual friends and loved ones. You can also bet that the sexual politics of Ellen Degeneres, trumpeted on air, and the dark discoveries of agents Mulder and Scully are vastly more important to this nation of television addicts than, say, atomic saber-rattling in India and Pakistan, or reading a book (any book), or actual violence a block from home. Glued to the boob tube six, seven, ten hours a day, we have let its cunning fantasies become our babysitter, our drug of choice, our counterfeit reality.
That's the subject--one of them, anyway--of Peter Weir's The Truman Show, a brilliant comic horror movie about the rough beast that is TV and the profound effects it has on its vast legions of junkies. It's also about the act of acting, the art of artifice and the way media spectacle in the age of celebrity imprisons both participant and watcher. Need a reminder? Think of the low-speed Bronco chase. Or Princess Di in the tunnel.
Exploring the mysteries of image, true self and spiritual incarceration is a pretty tall order for a summer movie starring a rubber-faced goofball whose previous work depended on fart jokes and pratfalls. But then, Jim Carrey has given signs all along of better things to come. He's not quite the mindless buffoon many took him to be when he was playing pet detectives, liar-lawyers and dumb guys. In Truman, Carrey turns the wattage down a few notches and, without abandoning the child in himself, emerges as an adult.
The Truman Show of the title, it turns out, is the kind of cosmic fraud that might appeal equally to a master absurdist like Samuel Beckett and to a philosopher of media such as Marshall McLuhan. If we know what's good for us, it should also fascinate anyone who has a TV set in the house, especially if a couple of glazy-eyed kids are plunked down in front of it. Truman Burbank (Carrey), you see, is the most famous face on television, the star of a relentless documentary soap opera that has been running 24 hours a day for the last 30 years--since he was born. But he's virtually the only person on the planet who doesn't know that. The candy-colored, shadowless suburb where he lives--Seahaven--is a set. It's Frank Capra's Bedford Falls by way of Twin Peaks. His ever-sunny wife, Meryl (Laura Linney), his best friend, Marlon (Noah Emmerich), his co-workers down at the insurance office, all the people he greets on the street--they're all actors playing parts. Hilariously, they even sneak product pitches into the flow of this "television verite." After all, somebody's gotta pay the bills.
Meanwhile, Truman's the unwitting centerpiece of a domestic psychodrama set in a made-for-TV paradise, his whole happy, ordinary life a fiction recorded by thousands of hidden videocams and beamed to an audience of hundreds of millions.
Thus does Candid Camera collide with 1984. The creator of The Truman Show is the mysterious, black-clad Christof (Ed Harris), part God the Father, part fascist, part entertainment visionary. He has the power to cue up the noonday sun itself, to rain on Truman Burbank's skull, to invade every atom of his being. But before we start branding Christof a cartoon villain, we'd do well to consider our own complicity in his manipulation. We are, after all, watching a movie passing itself off as a TV show that lets us in on all the tricks of the trade as it artificially constructs a life. That's a lot scarier than any overgrown lizard or crashing asteroid we're likely to encounter in a movie theater this summer, and a lot funnier, too. But in the end, the joke's on us--the insatiable viewers--as much as it is on poor Truman.
Indeed, director Weir (The Year of Living Dangerously, Witness) sometimes cuts away to The Truman Show's own "viewers," and they are people like us--bored cops watching at the station house, an old couple perched on a flowered sofa, a gaggle of drinkers gathered under the tube in a neighborhood bar decorated with Truman pennants and posters. At the screening I attended, the audience laughed knowingly during these brief views of their surrogate selves, and if I don't miss my guess, a murmur of discomfort and bafflement also passed through the dark.
What is it that so enthralls The Truman Show's devoted millions? Like the tangle of metaphors in this elaborate allegory, that's open to some interpretation. But you won't go far wrong speculating that it's the untold secret of Truman's victimization that keeps the dial set where it is--the mass conspiracy by which huge numbers of people play Peeping Tom on a life very much like their own, imagining themselves the subject of the grandiose hoax but without having to pay the emotional price. Ever notice the people giving the thumbs-up sign or wagging a "we're number one" finger at the camera at the end of what passes for the TV news? The grins on those citizen-faces say that they know they're being used and that, for a moment at least, they've been allowed to join the club. The world, after all, is now divided between those who are on television and those who are not.
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The question is: Can Truman Burbank escape his fate?
Screenwriter Andrew Niccol, who covered some of the same ground in last year's underrated sci-fi feature Gattaca, is no pushover. But he's no hangdog Franz Kafka, either. In the dark since birth, our cheery innocent of a hero (and kindly put a lid on the fatuous Forrest Gump parallels) does suspect something is amiss in the Disneyfied hell of Seahaven when he starts noticing certain repetitions, certain surreal tilts in the placid texture of his life.
It wouldn't do to say much more--Seinfeld's producers didn't let on, did they?--except to note that this is Carrey's finest hour. In a performance at once touching, truly comic and (given Truman's bizarre circumstances) startlingly real, Carrey paints the portrait of a fictional character struggling to discover his humanity in a maze of mere episodes. "I know you better than you know yourself," Christof booms once the game is up. But salvation may still be in the offing for Truman Burbank, despite storm-tossed seas provided by the special-effects department and the demands of an audience that cannot get enough of its beloved prisoner.
Will The Truman Show--the movie, I mean--connect with actual audiences? That's hard to tell. Will that murmur of discomfort wafting through the theater turn into insight? No idea. But if you'd like to escape for a minute--101 swift minutes, actually--from the stock fantasies of summer moviedom in favor of a fantasy that illuminates real life, you won't do better than this terrifyingly funny dare of a film. At its best, it serves to roll the credits on a way we've long presumed to view the world.
The Truman Show.
Screenplay by Andrew Niccol. Directed by Peter Weir. With Jim Carrey, Laura Linney, Ed Harris and Noah Emmerich.