A gemlike picture crafted with rare and immaculate precision, “The Truman Show” amusingly and convincingly presents a nuclear community as a vast television studio. An outstandingly successful change of pace for comic star Jim Carrey and a tour de force for director Peter Weir, this clever commentary on media omnipotence is unusual enough to be perceived as daringly offbeat for a major Hollywood studio production, although all of its ideas will be perfectly accessible even to the most general audiences. Carrey’s youngest and dumbest fans might not get what they crave, but viewers primed for something a bit out of the ordinary will find themselves swept away by the film’s ingenious flights of fancy and emotional dynamic. At the very least, Carrey’s drawing power and widespread critical support spell strong early summer B.O. for this human-centered fantastical story, although Paramount will no doubt do everything it can to encourage the public to think of “Truman” in “Gump”-like zeitgeist terms.
A fable about a man whose entire life, unbeknownst to him, has been the subject of a staggeringly popular, 24-hour-per-day TV show, pic trades in issues of personal liberty vs. authoritarian control, safe happiness vs. the excitement of chaos, manufactured emotions, the penetration of media to the point where privacy vanishes, and the fascination of fabricated images over plain sight. But as lucid and concentrated as the film’s point-making is, its saving grace is its lightness, its assumption that modern audiences are just as savvy about the media as are its practitioners and don’t need to have lessons hammered home.
As fresh as “The Truman Show” may seem, Andrew Niccol’s original screenplay actually has numerous antecedents, beginning with Paul Bartel’s bracingly insidious 1965 short “Secret Cinema,” which he later remade as an “Amazing Stories” episode. Viewers may also think of such “filmed reality” pieces as “An American Family,” “Real Life” and “Stuart Saves His Family,” not to mention MTV’s popular “The Real World.” But perhaps the strongest flavors stem from Patrick McGoohan’s brilliant TV series “The Prisoner,” with its pristine, Big Brother-controlled island setting from which the hero felt compelled to escape.
Keeping its artistic cards close to its chest, pic’s first half-hour presents excerpts from day 10,909 in the life of Truman Burbank (Carrey), a virtual caricature of a clean-cut, “normal” guy. Married to the perennially perky Meryl (Laura Linney), Truman lives in the immaculate planned community of Seahaven, an antiseptic island “paradise” where people are forever cheery and nothing untoward ever happens.
The only scar Truman carries with him comes from the long-ago death of his father in a boating accident, which has given him an insurmountable fear of water. But the young man also harbors a secret yearning, a wanderlust stimulated by his fleeting romance with Lauren (Natascha McElhone), a beautiful student literally snatched from his embrace some years back and supposedly spirited away to Fiji, where he therefore longs to go.
In a superbly executed succession of scenes that employ a variety of lens types and points of view, Truman’s daily routine is covered: his jaunty salutations of neighbors, his trip (in invariably ideal weather) to the newsstand and then to his office at a large insurance company. In the course of things, however, slight cracks appear in his life’s perfect veneer that arouse his suspicion: Truman sees a homeless man he’s sure is his father, and a radio malfunction allows him to briefly overhear the transmissions intended for the “extras” who, in fact, constitute the population of Seahaven and make up the supporting cast for his “life story.”
Once the curtain has been raised on the wizardry behind Truman’s existence, those around him go into panicky damage-control mode, with his wife and mother trying to sustain his innocence as long as possible. But beginning with an abortive escape attempt and a staged reunion of Truman with his long-lost father, the hand of Truman’s “inventor” and manipulator, Christof (Ed Harris), becomes increasingly evident. Directing the most-watched TV show in the world from an elegant perch high above Seahaven, this master conceptual artist and soap opera fabri-cator tries to turn the adversity of Truman’s discovery of the truth to the program’s advantage. Above all, of course, Truman must not escape, and story’s final stretch is devoted to his perilous attempt to cut the strings with which Christof so minutely controls him.
Matching the firm hand Christof maintains on Truman is the absolute rigor Weir and Niccol (“Gattaca”) demonstrate in their telling of the story. Every last detail is perfectly in place, every possible thematic innuendo and sly joke is inserted in just the right place and to correctly judged effect. Those who prefer their cinema more spontaneous and less calculated will no doubt blanch, but one can’t help but admire the staggering intricacy of what the filmmakers have achieved, and shudder at what less talented artists might have done with similar material.
Dominating the proceedings from start to finish is the visual perfection of the “settings” Christof has created as the backdrop for Truman’s life and, by extension, of the film itself. Shooting at Seaside, Fla., Weir and his ace team, led by production designer Dennis Gassner and cinematographer Peter Biziou, dazzlingly reveal a veritable velvet coffin under glass, a “safe” haven that the self-styled benevolent fascist Christof can convincingly argue is “the best place on Earth.” Biziou’s extensive use of different lenses is particularly noteworthy, and the special effects that are actually part and parcel of the Seahaven lifestyle are all the more effective for their gingerly use.
Occasionally letting fly with some vocal and physical antics, Carrey delivers an impressively disciplined performance that is always engaging and fully expresses the conformist habits and potentially rebellious inner desires of his character. The other dominant actor here is Harris, who carries the final stretches of the picture and is commanding as the man who would be a god. Linney is purposefully arch as Truman’s wife, Noah Emmerich is quietly outstanding as the hero’s lifelong best friend and confidant, and McElhone vibrantly represents the woman who, from afar, acts as Truman’s greatest inspiration and cheerleader.
Film’s musical elements are beautifully orchestrated from among Burkhard Dallwitz’s original score, rhapsodic elements contributed by Philip Glass and numerous classical excerpts.