Truman Show, The (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) is the star of the most popular show in the history of television. For 10,909 days, it has been on the air, using 5000 cameras to show every moment in every day of the life of one man. The public loves it -- there are Truman addicts who go to sleep with the TV on and who have sets installed in the bathroom so they don't miss anything when they're taking a bath. Every individual in "The Truman Show" is an actor with one important exception: the lead character himself. For, while everyone around Truman is playing a part, he is cheerfully ignorant about the truth. He thinks this is all real, and his obliviousness to the situation gives the program its core appeal -- that there's nothing counterfeit about Truman. One day, however, when a former member of the cast sneaks back onto the set with a warning for the star, Truman begins to suspect that appearances can be deceiving.

For those who bemoan Hollywood's consistent lack of originality (as I frequently do), The Truman Show is a welcome surprise. Over the years, there have been many satires about the power of television, but none has taken this route. Director Peter Weir, whose past credits include Witness, Dead Poets Society, and Fearless, has wed this cautionary tale about media strength with a surprisingly affecting (if somewhat uneven) drama about one man's search for the meaning of life. The only thing I wonder is whether something this quirky will be able to find a large enough audience to justify the budget.

Paramount Pictures is clearly using The Truman Show as an example of summer counterprogramming. The movie opens up a scant two weeks after Godzilla and announces its intentions with the first line: "We're tired of pyrotechnics and special effects…" But are we? More importantly, is Jim Carrey's draw strong enough to pack theaters showing this movie, especially when his role here is light years away from the zany character he usually plays? And how badly will marketing The Truman Show as a comedy hurt the movie when viewers realize that's not what it is? These questions, which lie at the heart of the picture's hope for success, will be answered fairly quickly once it is released.

For Carrey detractors who are easily turned off by the comic's rubber-faced antics, The Truman Show proves to be an eye-opener. Not only does Carrey remain rigidly-controlled and reigned in, but it would be fair to call his performance both understated and effective. Exhibiting the charm and charisma of a Tom Hanks or even a young Jimmy Stewart, Carrey develops the sort of likable personae that a movie of this sort needs to succeed. He is ably supported by a cast that includes Laura Linney as Truman's TV wife, Natascha McElhone as his one true love, Noah Emmerich as his best friend, and Ed Harris as "God," the TV program's creator and director.

Most movies today run far too long, but The Truman Show is actually too short. A considerable amount of worthwhile material goes unexplored. (For example, one question that is never answered is whether Truman actually has sex with his actress-wife.) I would have liked to know something about the personal pressures faced by the actors in "The Truman Show" and more about the incredibly complex logistics of controlling and filming the entire life of one man. Narratively, the film is a little rough around the edges, as if a lot more was filmed than what shows up on-screen, but, although the flow may be off a little, it's not difficult to follow what's going on.

Stylistically, The Truman Show uses an interesting approach, intercutting documentary- like interviews and lengthy excerpts from the program (these can be identified by the elliptical matte around the frame) with "real life" footage of the director and behind-the-scenes people. Weir isn't the first film maker to apply this technique (it's a "mockumentary" staple), but he uses it to good effect, and it works well in the context of this movie. As far as overt satire and comedy go, the obvious use of product placements gets some of the biggest laughs and several of the "fear of travel" posters (designed to keep Truman from venturing outside of his created hometown of Seahaven) are hilarious.

As an intriguing, well-written piece of entertainment and a mild social commentary, The Truman Show deserves high marks. Not everything in the film works, and the script isn't perhaps as deep or incisive as it would like us to believe, but there's enough here to mark The Truman Show as a worthwhile motion picture -- an appealing, offbeat, one-hundred minute diversion for those who really are tired of monsters tearing down buildings and action heroes saving the world.

Truman Show, The (United States, 1998)

Director: Peter Weir
Cast: Jim Carrey, Laura Linney, Ed Harris, Noah Emmerich, Natascha McElhone, Holland Taylor, Ted Raymond
Screenplay: Andrew Niccol
Cinematography: Peter Biziou
Music: Burkhart Dallwitz
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: 1998-06-05
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1