The Truman Show
Why do millions of people watch the happy-go-lucky and rather routine daily activities of Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey)? In The Truman Show, an intelligent, sometimes powerful, but ultimately disappointing fable, people sit glued to their TVs 24 hours a day, watching Truman move cheerfully through his sunshiny hometown Seahaven on his way to work. Some of the viewers, we’re told, find his humdrum life soothing — he’s living the ideal, conflict-free life. Others, I imagine, are waiting for the moment when he discovers what everyone else in the world knows — that he’s living inside a perpetual TV show, “on the air unaware.”
The Truman Show, directed by Peter Weir (Dead Poets Society) from a script by Andrew Niccol (who wrote and directed the superior Gattaca last year), takes a rather ugly view of American voyeurism. There they are — there we are — staring at this poor bastard going through his paces. The movie is a metaphor for any number of media evils (it has its spiritual side, too), but it only occasionally probes what it might actually be like to find out that your entire life has been faked — or what it’s like to be one of those actors hired to play Truman’s wife or best friend. Weir and Niccol haven’t really imagined or gotten inside their characters. The film is a skilled and elegant blank (it is significant, if nothing else, as the first and very likely last Jim Carrey movie scored by Philip Glass and Burkhard Dallwitz), and it doesn’t end up saying much of anything.
Jim Carrey tries hard — his trying hard registers as conscious restraint, trying not to be wacky — and his performance isn’t bad, but it isn’t entirely successful, either. At times, he reminded me of Robin Williams working overtime to achieve sad-clown pathos; it may be a few years before Carrey can simply relax and be a normal Earthling, as Williams did in Dead Poets Society or Good Will Hunting. I suppose my basic complaint may sound ungrateful: Carrey isn’t very funny here — he doesn’t find humor in Truman beyond the “Good morning! And if I don’t see ya, good afternoon and good evening!” shtick we’ve seen in the ads.
Seahaven is actually a gigantic studio set, run by a Godlike director named Christof (Ed Harris); he’s literally the man in the moon — Seahaven’s faux moon is his headquarters. Harris is impressive in his intense, bullheaded way, as usual — but what, if anything, does Christof feel about Truman, his greatest creation? And what about the actress who plays Meryl, Truman’s wife? Laura Linney, in a terrific Chinese-box performance (playing an actress playing Meryl), shows glimmers of the real woman under the facade, but the script doesn’t help her. Does she have a life outside Seahaven? Perhaps even another man? All of these things might have been suggested, painted with delicate strokes and putting small holes in Truman’s illusion, instead of the broad hints he gets (a Klieg light falling from the sky, etc.).
The film gets to us occasionally, when it triggers common paranoia and plays on our fleeting thoughts that everything around us has been conspiratorially staged. But it’s amorphous; it can be interpreted any number of ways — for a while, I read it as the interior dissolution of a paranoid schizophrenic who has delusions of grandeur and finally hears the voice of God (Christof) in his head. The movie could be that, or it could be a statement about the decrease of privacy or the increase in isolation — and, of course, the media is to blame for it all. But “the media” is a meaningless straw man if you don’t also indict its audience — and, in the end, we’re let off the hook. The voyeurs become Truman’s ardent supporters, rooting for him to break out of the same false reality they’ve been watching for thirty years. The Truman Show isn’t meant to be taken literally, and it may appeal, like Forrest Gump, to softhearted idealists. But some of us may go out wishing for something meatier, edgier. Everyone in the movie seems as confined as Truman, and the gifted filmmakers seem as distant as Christof — looking down on us from the moon and dropping comforting pieties.