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The Truman Show: Jim Carrey isn't all fun and games

By Vladimir V. Zelevinsky
Staff Reporter

Directed by Peter Weir

Written by Andrew Niccol

Starring Jim Carrey, Ed Harris, Laura Linney, Noah Emmerich, Natascha McElhone

I usually strongly dislike when a film preview tells me too much about the plot of the movie I haven't seen yet - there are few pleasures of movie-going quite equal to the pleasure of discovering the world that the film's characters inhabit. Therefore I was quite miffed by the preview of The Truman Show, which gave away the central concept of the movie. But now I'm glad I knew what was going on. In this modern era of Hollywood movies (all high-concept, and nothing but high-concept), knowing what the movie is about is usually a sufficient substitute to watching the movie itself; such is not the case here. The Truman Show is a high-concept film, and much more.

Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) thinks he is a low-level worker in an insurance company, leading a normal boring life. In "reality," the whole world around him is a 24-hour TV show, with Truman playing the lead - no, being the lead. Everyone around him is an actor, his town is a huge studio set, and 5,000 TV cameras record every second of his existence. But Truman himself does not know this, and it is he who is slowly discovering the truth about his world.

That's a high-concept, all right. And it stars Jim Carrey, Mr. Rubberface himself, to boot. However, The Truman Show also has truly impressive pedigree, directed by Peter Weir (Witness, Dead Poets Society) and written by Andrew Niccol (Gattaca). These two turn this film into a extremely smart, always thought-provoking, and once in a while emotionally affecting film. But only once in a while.

Other than perfunctory similarities to Niccol's Gattaca screenplay (a lone hero battling a major conspiracy, overtones of a religious parable, feelings of general paranoia and aquaphobia), this screenplay also has an unwieldy and cumbersome structure, which, at least in the beginning, somewhat impedes enjoyment of it. If only Niccol chose to position the film viewers inside Truman's world to begin with - with the cracks in the illusion surprising both Truman and the audience - the emotional impact could have been staggering. Instead, for its first half, the film follows Truman's life, and inexplicably cuts to the people in the outside world watching Truman on TV.

This is why I'm glad I knew what was going on in advance: I presume that without this knowledge, it's quite possible to be mystified by the seemingly random people on screen discussing Truman's life. The decision to construct the first half of the movie this way is underwhelming, but this is the movie's only real shortcoming, since everything else is truly remarkable.

The screenplay is the smartest one I've encountered this year, deftly combining laugh-out-loud comedy with razor-sharp wit, and a complex (but never obvious) interplay of symbols and metaphors. The Truman Show is concerned not only with such obvious subjects as TV-obsessed culture, modern cult of celebrity, and the interference of media in private lives, but also the conflict between free will and destiny, the fight between a man and a god, and the eternal quest for freedom.

This is clearly Jim Carrey's first bid to be considered a serious actor; after all, Peter Weir did help Robin Williams make the same transition with Dead Poets Society. Carrey's performance is very good, but certainly not of award caliber; this distinction belongs to Ed Harris, who plays the show's writer/director Christof, who is also Truman's surrogate father - and god. However, Carrey proves that he can turn in a serious - consistently serious - performance. Towards the end, it is he who provides most of the emotional payoff.

The technical aspects are impeccable: Truman's world is both real and sitcom-like in its appeal; the special effects are spot-on; and the score, including some original music by none other than the seminal Philip Glass, is excellent.