The awareness of one's situation in the world has long been the subject for literature and theater. There's Cinderella, who doesn't know what we and her stepsisters know, which is that she is fated for something better than sweeping the fireplace. There's Snow White, who is unaware that she's been pegged "fairest of them all," and must suffer the consequences.
In "The Truman Show," Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) learns that all 30 years of his life have been under surveillance, providing the material for a popular television show. Unknowingly the star of this lucrative program, he's been watched by a camera everywhere he's turned for the last three decades in his idyllic hometown of Seahaven - which is actually a huge, cleverly designed television studio. All the intimate moments of his life, including his illegitimate birth, have been recorded.
He is a captive, watched 24-hours-a-day by millions around the world (Truman is big with insomniacs). When his wife, Meryl (Laura Linney, playing the part like Betty White gone mad), suggests he drink some wonderful Mocha Cocoa, she is just doing her job as a product-placement mouthpiece, hawking java to the world. Every time she makes love to her husband it is a lie.
His best friend since childhood, Marlon (Noah Emmerich), is a hired actor whose livelihood depends on the continuance of the show. Naturally, as Truman was the product of an unwanted pregnancy and the world's first baby adopted by a corporation, his mother (Holland Taylor) is also an actress, whose true feelings toward Truman are no doubt somewhat less than maternal.
Director Peter Weir, who has a gift for making sentimental pap ( "Dead Poets Society" ) palatable, uses sweetness to portray evil this time, saving this movie from being mere science fiction twaddle.
For those of us watching poor Truman muddle through his manufactured life, what feels worst about the charade is that we know that everyone around him knows he is a dupe, and that all of his dreams and wishes are doomed to failure if they threaten the continuation of the series. When Truman tries to book a flight to Fiji, the travel agent, also an actress on "The Truman Show" payroll, informs him that nothing is available. When he quietly tries to get the telephone number of the girl he loved in high school (Natasha McElhone) - an actress fired from the show because of the real attraction between her and Truman - everyone on the show, everyone on earth, knows Truman's secret.
Truman the unwanted baby has grown up in middle American bounty through the largesse of the show's creator, Christof (Ed Harris), but anything Truman tries to do that might contradict the show's predetermined plot lines will always be thwarted by Christof's police-state methods. So, Truman lives a lovely life under a fascistic thumb.
CARREY, famous for portraying idiots in "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" and "Dumb and Dumber," restrains himself admirably in the role of Truman. Yes, "The Truman Show" is a comedy, but it's neither stupefying nor vulgar. Yet this is pretty brutal stuff for a breezy summer release. By holding back the trademark broad humor to prove he is a real actor, Carrey seems a bit nervous, as if he's worried that he's too bland to hold the movie together. But Truman, after all, is a bland fellow. Johnny Depp, who is the personification of charisma, might have made a more adorable hero, but Carrey does the job. He has chosen to play Truman as a wigged out Darren from
"Bewitched." That look of befuddlement hangs over his brow for most of the movie.
For my money, Carrey's best movie was "The Cable Guy" because it was so dark, and a man with Carrey's natural penchant for the plastic grimace and the easy laugh needs chilling material to check his Jerry Lewis-ness.
Like "The Prisoner," the galvanizing 1960s Patrick McGoohan television series that this movie so closely resembles, "The Truman Show" takes itself lightly enough to set up a distance from the disturbing social experiment it portrays. McGoohan played a former British agent imprisoned on a lovely island featuring open-door cells complete with maid service, nice clothes and good food. He was free to lead his life as he liked except of course that what he wanted most was to be off the island. Every attempt at escape was violently prevented. Unlike Truman, he knew he was a prisoner; he just never knew why he was held.
Working from an exceptionally good script by Andrew Niccol (the 34-year-old New Zealander wrote and directed
"Gattaca" ), Weir ( "The Year of Living Dangerously," "Witness" ) moves us seamlessly through this unusual premise, never veering from the central idea. (Weir is said to have rewritten Niccol's script extensively.)
THE MOVIE is never really surprising except when the fans of the television show watching in bars and at home begin to realize that their favorite TV personality is trying to escape his life and thus end the show they love so much. Instead of rooting for Christof (get the heavy-handed deity reference? At one point he shouts, "Cue the sun!" ) to outwit Truman and keep the show going, they cheer when Truman determines the truth and tries to escape.
"The Truman Show" is a crowd pleaser that caters to our horror of totalitarianism, our love of personal freedom, our belief - justified or deluded - that knowledge is a powerful tool and that access to information is a God-given right. I'm not sure if the movie is more disturbing because Truman is a prisoner or because he has been lied to.
In many ways, "The Truman Show" is as political as
"Bulworth," which is also a fairy tale, but a bit more subtle. In both movies, no one (but Truman) has a functioning conscience. Despite the fact that the TV show has an audience of millions of devotees, many of them sympathetic to Truman's plight, no one was able to mount a campaign to free Truman. And, I guess, the inability of the masses to rise up against tyranny is one of the movie's chief points.