Film Review: The Truman Show

Grab your thesaurus and look up the following words: wonderful, excellent, charming, intelligent, funny, delightful, superb, sublime and brilliant. Begin a sentence with "This film is" and then write down all of the synonyms that your Roget's can offer. Call that my pocket review of The Truman Show.

I'm not a Jim Carrey fan. In fact, I've never been a fan of that over-the-top style of humour, where a fine and simple joke is milked for more humour than it was ever supposed to offer. I prefer jokes that jump up unexpectedly, get a laugh and then step quickly out of the way, their purpose served with maximum impact and a minimum of fuss. The delivery of such a joke should be simple and understated, allowing the joke to stand on its own two feet. It should not require outlandish expressions to emphasise a punchline.

Jim Carrey's film roles have generally been larger than life, his characters presented as jokes in themselves, with The Mask and Ace Ventura his best known examples. Where some might overact a little, Carrey takes it to the extreme. The crown prince of fools.

But back when he was beginning to make a name for himself on the big screen, I saw part of a minor drama called "Doing Time on Maple Drive". The piece featured Carrey as one of the actors and it was worlds away from the style that would later become his trademark. If I recall correctly, Carrey played a troubled son in a rather dysfunctional family. There was no comedic element in the role whatsoever.

In a way, Carrey's part in The Truman Show is a return to the more serious acting of that piece. But where that was b-grade and of no importance, the part of insurance salesman Truman Burbank is infinitely more involved. This is a film brimming with more original ideas than any film should ever be asked to carry, and as the man at the centre of it all, this is easily Carrey's most challenging role.

I'm sure you've heard the basic premise of this tale already, but if you haven't, stop reading now and rush off and watch this before someone explains it to you. This is a wonderfully rich, thought provoking film that is perhaps best appreciated with minimal preparation.

For everyone else, it would hardly be news that Carrey plays Truman Burbank, a man whose entire life is a TV show and whose hometown of Seahaven is the worlds biggest studio soundstage. Truman is unaware that his entire world has been manufactured for a global audience. Presented with that fantastic idea for the first time, you'd probably need a few minutes to digest it before a multitude of questions will start to flow.

Imagine then what the writer and then director had to wrestle with. Where would you begin to tell a story like this? Do you make the film comedy, pure sci-fi or probing drama? Will the film have a moral? If so, what would it be?

The writer who devised this tale is Andrew Niccol, who also wrote and directed the bleak, disturbing but fascinating sci-fi film Gattaca. In the directors chair you'll find Australian Peter Weir, the man who guided films such as Witness, Dead Poets Society, Green Card and Fearless.

The film opens with Carrey, staring into his bathroom mirror and acting the fool. As we titter at the clown once again, we also move uncomfortably in our seats. Even though he is in our faces as much as he has ever been, this time his antics are strictly private. When his wife calls out, pointing out that he's going to be late for work, his clowning comes to an abrupt halt. As we stare each other in the eye (usually a way for two people to gauge honesty), we see the character of Truman but he doesn't see or acknowledge us. From the opening scene, Truman demonstrates complete honesty and we are powerless to do anything but be dishonest as we stare at him.

In the subsequent scenes, we return to our more familiar position of detached observers. We are introduced to a seamless world of shiny cars, immaculately tidy streets and freshly painted buildings. By some definitions, Truman's world is perfect although you may sense something odd about the unusual camera angles.

We are slowly introduced to the other characters. As Meryl, Laura Linney has the difficult task of acting the role of the actress who plays the part of Truman's wife. She is a walking talking set of teeth, always quick to flash her smile when she is proclaiming the wonders of some household product or when wrestling with the doubts that begin to plague Truman. Later, when the facade begins to collapse, her portrayal of Meryl turns from amusing to downright harrowing.

To me, the most chilling of the key characters was Marlon, Truman's best friend since they were children. As the one closest to Truman, one of his main responsibilities is to constantly reassure Truman that nothing is wrong and it's a task that he never flinches from even as his "script" becomes more and more disturbing. While Meryl may act sincere, she's rarely believable. On the other hand, Marlon is a master of deception, being entirely convincing at all times. If the TV show has stolen Truman's chance of a "normal" life, I sense that what it has done to Marlon is similarly irreversible.

Natascha McElhone plays the part of Lauren, the mysterious woman who suddenly appeared in Truman's life, stole his heart and then vanished just as quickly. She has little to do but appear luminous (although I'm sure that's listed on her CV under "core skills") and then later appear angry as she argues with the show's creator, Christof.

Ed Harris plays Christof, the visionary who created the show and who continues to supervise the day-to-day events of Truman's life. Although he is introduced in a pivotal interview (the entire film turns on this scene) it is not until later that we are allowed glimpses of the man behind the rhetoric, as one moment we see him affectionately stroking the face of Truman (albeit on a giant TV screen) and later we watch as he ruthlessly attempts to kill his "creation". This is a character who has defined and lived his own moral code for 30 years, and Harris seems to relish the unusual role. In the hands of a less capable actor, this character could have easily been just a token representation of the mechanisms of the entertainment industry, but we see him as a fascinating, complex and somehow misunderstood man. He might be our window into the market forces behind the show, but he also comes off as an individual with his own personal dream, however bizarre and repulsive it may be.

As for Carrey himself, his performance is a joy to watch. This is a tricky role, requiring him to convey a certain amount of lovability while retaining enough genuine believability to carry the more serious moments. At times, he plays the straight man to the fake joviality of the people around him (such as Meryl), at other times he is the jovial one. Given the premise of this film, I found no belly laughs - there's a certain guilt associated with laughing at someone whose life is being so cruelly manipulated. The real thrill of his performance are the glimpses past the caricature and into the soul of the character. There's nothing artificial about Truman when his exasperation and utter confusion take command, like the moment when he challenges his wife with "what are you doing?" as she suddenly breaks into yet another product placement.

Weir's pacing of this film is impeccable. Nothing feels rushed, nothing feels overdone and although he points an accusing finger, he keeps it out of plain sight. He deploys his considerable filmmaking skills captivating his audience (Carrey certainly assists there), knowing that if they love Truman and the film itself, they won't be able to prevent themselves from pondering the story later.

As good as Carrey is, it's outside the scope of his role to offer the more cutting criticism that this film demands. That criticism is left to bubble through the actions of the supporting characters, whether it be Truman's distraught wife bawling "it's not professional!" in a distressed moment or the apprehensive staff in the control centre towards the end of the film.

It's reasonable to ask how many characters find The Truman Show morally uncomfortable? I counted only two: Truman and Natascha. Every other character is morally flawed in some way, whether they are the actors who play Truman's "friends" and "family", the crew in the show's control centre or the fans watching at home in the real world.

As Weir seduces us so completely with the heady blend of schmaltz and sinister actions, he never sits back and believes that we are learning anything. At the conclusion of the film, we laugh at the mixed reactions of those who have loved Truman on their TV screens but even here, as the film moves into the final wrap-up shots, Weir fires one last sharp shot at his audience: the two parking attendants turn from the test pattern on their TV to the TV guide in their hands, one asking the other "what else is on?".

Although Weir knows we have been enthralled by this tale, he also knows we're going to check the upcoming attractions as we leave. Weir understands the fickle nature of Hollywood well enough to know that any victory (such as Witness) is likely to be soon forgotten (Fearless). Niccoll can be thanked for this juicy idea; Weir can be thanked for the experience he brings to the execution. The result of their labour is a potent fable which we will remember and admire for years. Quite frankly, I've never seen anything like it.

© David Gilliver 1998

if you're interested in this film, an early version of the script is fascinating reading, featuring some startling scenes that give the whole tale a stronger bite

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