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'Truman': A Surreally Big Show

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 5, 1998

  Movie Critic

The Truman Show
Jim Carrey stars in "The Truman Show." (Paramount)

Peter Weir
Jim Carrey;
Laura Linney;
Noah Emmerich;
Natascha McElhone;
Holland Taylor;
Ed Harris;
Brian Delate;
Una Damon
Running Time:
1 hour, 44 minutes
For a disturbing scene of a drowning
"The Truman Show," an ingenious and audacious satire of media manipulation from director Peter Weir, ingratiates itself so slyly-thanks to a performance by a genial and, yes, subtle Jim Carrey-that it is only in retrospect that one fully realizes just how deeply its corrosive wit has bitten into the flesh of our modern, TV-obsessed society. To be sure, the movie has plenty of laughs, but like sunlight on the deceptively calm surface of the sea, its light humor dances fitfully over dark and dangerous undercurrents.

Truman Burbank (Carrey) seems to be living the American Dream. Like the proverbial man who has everything, he's got a beautiful-if slightly vapid-wife, Meryl (Laura Linney), and a good job that's just a short drive in a new car from his perfect bungalow and impeccable lawn on the ever-temperate isle of Seahaven. It's located somewhere just off the U.S. coastline, but it doesn't really matter exactly where. The Pollyannaish motto on Truman's license plates says enough: "A nice place to live."

There is something eerily reminiscent of Stepford, Conn., in this geographically indeterminate town, however. The neighbors are all a mite too perky, their toothy smiles a tad too wide and too whitened. Truman himself, who apparently wants for nothing, is beginning to suffer from his own malaise-a fixation on escaping the creepy plastic paradise in search of a long-lost high-school sweetheart who, he has been told, was spirited away to the republic of Fiji.

Try as he might, however, he just can't seem to get off that darn island. The ferry to the mainland is out of the question due to his childhood fear of water. A travel agent informs him that all flights are booked for months, and when he undertakes a road trip across the causeway, a nuclear power plant accident inconveniently blocks all roads out of town.

What Truman doesn't know is that he can't leave town because town isn't a town at all but a giant studio backdrop, and his entire life-including his increasingly dramatic attempts to flee-is the subject of a 24-hour soap opera, broadcast seven days a week to millions of avid viewers around the globe. His friends and family are all actors, his possessions all "product placements," and everything that happens to him is engineered from a huge control booth in the sky (quite literally) by the show's creator and executive producer. As the megalomaniacal, beret-wearing Christof, Ed Harris delivers an intense and seductive portrait of power run amok.

In a deft, ironic touch, even Truman Burbank's name simultaneously evokes both reality (true-man) and unreality (Burbank, Calif., of course, home to many a TV and movie studio).

What Weir and screenwriter Andrew Niccol ("Gattaca") have done is create a shrewd amalgam of surrealism, social commentary and romantic comedy that registers as wholly original. The comedy makes the film's mordant message about consumerism and corporate excess palatable, while the surrealism leavens the polemic and keeps it from ever becoming ham-handed. While echoing "Network," "Capricorn One" and "1984," as well as the cult television series "The Prisoner," "The Truman Show" defines its own niche.

Jim Carrey groupies may initially be put off by the sight of their usually rubber-faced hero trying to act relatively normal-and succeeding. But even "normal" pitch for Carrey is slightly over-the-top anyway, which is perfectly appropriate for the heightened reality of Weir's TV sound-stage world. The visual look of the fictional Seahaven-a somewhat more luridly colored version of a 1950s-sitcom Anytown, USA-is queasily portrayed by the real Seaside, Fla., a theme park-like planned community in northwest Florida. "The Truman Show" is that rare cinematic experience-a movie so close to pure perfection that it seems a shame to spoil it by even reading a review beforehand. Ironically, this intricate satire on the subject of media saturation should be seen by eyes untainted by previews, television advertisements or even the opinions of critics in order for its smart, teasing story to work its full magic.

Unfortunately, in this day and age, you'd have to have been living in a cave these past few weeks to remain untouched by the film's televised ad campaign, which bluntly reveals much of what is only gradually peeled away in the theater.

That's a shame, I suppose, but after all, maybe that very triumph of commerce over art is the whole point of this brilliantly conceived and flawlessly executed film.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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