The Truman Show

(Peter Weir, USA, 1998)


The Truman Show is a film full of facile points and lazy laughs. It gives the impression of having been made less for those who love or enjoy movies than for those media commentators who like to tut-tut about the decline of TV, society and general moral values.


At every point it windily denounces the hype and illusions of a media-fed society – yet is itself a furiously over-hyped, glossy, vacuous exercise.


With Peter Weir (Fearless, 1993, Witness, 1985) in the director's chair, it is also something of a five-finger exercise, seemingly virtuosic as it juggles its various pieces. Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) stars in a non-stop télé-vérité show devoted to his ordinary, daily life: his work, his joys, his woes, his destiny. Truman's show is a Sylvania Waters-style reality program, a living soap opera taken to a Kafkaesque extreme – complete with product placement, a minor cultural phenomenon on which the film wastes far too many jokes.


Apart from a few cryptic glimpses and clues near the very beginning, the script by Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, 1997) holds off from showing us the complete behind-the-scenes reality for quite some time. Until then, we mainly follow Truman as he encounters the first signs of the program's breakdown – a movie light falling from the clear blue sky, or his car radio suddenly broadcasting the director's instructions to extras in the street.


The more that Truman suspects he is trapped in some fiendish plot, the more he tests the limits of his fake, prepackaged world. The film's only moments of wild, surreal humour come at these points – when, for instance, he barges into a hospital to watch an operation, or decides spontaneously to ride on a bus. These are also the only moments when Carrey is allowed to do anything even remotely physical – when he can do what he is best at as a comic performer.


Precious little else in The Truman Show makes much sense, or produces any effect of intriguing dramatic resonance. It is a cold, contrived film. Many fine, popular movies place little premium on plot plausibility, but this one suffers greatly from a thin, poorly worked out high-concept.


Have the other actors in Truman's show really been there all of his life, taking up set positions at key moments and basically goofing off otherwise? Does the woman reluctantly playing his wife, Meryl (Laura Linney), ever actually have sex with him? How does a renegade actor, Lauren (Natascha McElhone), manage to steal Truman away for a few 'authentic' moments of love?


The film's presentation of the show's audience is equally woolly. Is the world of TV viewers (disgracefully caricatured as a bunch of dumb, housebound automatons) really enthralled by the sight of Truman sitting at his work desk, sleeping in bed or going to the loo? And how can these viewers regard Truman's life as an engrossing soap opera when they are also fully informed that it is all a fake?


Weir works hard to imply (through the use of odd angles and masking devices) that what we see of Truman's life is limited to exactly what the numerous, hidden TV cameras see. This is an unwise choice that leads to much clumsy sleight of hand – and many moments that simply break the ground rules that Weir establishes for himself.


These narrative and stylistic problems pale beside the film's larger pretensions. The extravagant conceit devised by Niccol and Weir can only be artistically justified if Truman's nightmarish world serves as a decent metaphor for our own society. On this level, however, the film is frankly risible. Initially, the town of Seahaven is presented as a totalitarian vision of suburbia – all gleaming white facades, monotonous rituals of everyday life, and ubiquitous surveillance; private life is entirely absorbed into the public sphere.


Mid-way, the theme becomes a little denser. If Seahaven is a prison, nonetheless Truman as model citizen must voluntarily choose to stay within its limits forever. At this point the film attempts a sermon on ideological control – with Truman filled with inhibiting fears and fed a steady diet of Hollywood pap movies that teach conformity and obedience. Here, The Truman Show tries to rewrite Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946) for the postmodern era – but without one scrap of that film's complex compassion for ordinary people, families and communities.


It is easy to see what might have attracted Weir to this project. He has always been drawn to the figure of the special man – sometimes an inspired, elevated hero (as in Dead Poets Society, 1989), sometimes a deluded fool who takes his desire to disastrous extremes (as in The Mosquito Coast, 1986). This story gives Weir both options in the face-off between Truman and the “televisionary” in a beret who controls him, Christof (Ed Harris).


While Christof is revealed to be a fallen angel, Truman eventually ascends to the status of a Christ figure, facing likely martyrdom and crucifixion. The big, watery climax which hammers such pompous symbolism home is also the ultimate embodiment of everything that is horribly misjudged in The Truman Show.


MORE Carrey: The Cable Guy, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Batman Forever, Man on the Moon, Fun with Dick and Jane, Liar Liar

MORE Weir: Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave

© Adrian Martin September 1998

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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