Film Scouts Reviews

"The Truman Show"

by Karen Jaehne

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No sooner than we kicked Jerry Seinfeld into the syndication graveyard where our cultural bad habits flit like the undead, along came Australian director Peter Weir to show us what Seinfeld's good judgement saved us from: an entire network devoted to a show about nothing, running "24/7. " It's every TV producer's greatest aspiration: seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day of soap opera. We open up on the 10,909th episode of The Truman Show, in its twenty-ninth year of letting the cathode nation watch Truman Burbank grow up.

The quixotic appeal of The Truman Show is that it lets its star grow older in real time. On the other hand, by confining the character of Truman within the dimensions of a hit series, he never really grows up. He just ages, developing the infantalized and goofy self-obsession of most TV celebrities. If Truman's fans grew fickle and stopped watching him, not only would his ratings go down, but the corporation that adopted him at birth would have to kill him - or whatever you do to TV orphans. (Check with the Seinfeld gang in six months.)

Could Truman come back, say, like some of the Cheers characters, tarted up in new sound-stage surroundings? The movie, The Truman Show, is exhaustive in the way it examines every conceivable question, all dilemmas, and the witty irony of its premise. For example, does Truman have sex and can the audience see it? Yes and no, due to the tasteful punching of buttons on its creator/producer Christof's grand console in the control room that looks like a moon floating above Seahaven.

We are told that over 5,000 hidden cameras enable Christof to control what we see of Truman's life. Which prompts the question: does Truman have a life outside of what we see? Can one speak of the stuff that is not used as the detritus of Truman's life? Is Truman's life only - only? - a TV show? (We have all known certain people with less life than some TV shows.) Can excessive celebrity actually reduce a human life to nothing more than what the fans see on the screen, read at the check-out counter, or hear about on E!?

Is Truman's name, i.e., Tru-Man, symbolic in some vast paranoid construct, wherein everybody else is merely acting in the protagonist's show? Where nobody and nothing is real but the protagonist, and the story unwinds as a cautionary fable of our time? No, don't let the corporation delineate your life. Don't go for the ratings. Break out of that ideal world! Don't believe them, when they say they're part of your life. They're only - ACTING! And acting is the true enemy.

This is the brilliant paradox that Peter Weir's movie plays with. It's as clever as a house of mirrors: wherever you look, there's a new angle - until you're spinning in paranoia.

The marketing has made sure that everybody walking into the movie knows the premise, so they waste no time getting to a point of self doubt that has required 29 years for Truman himself to achieve. It goes to the core of identity. Jim Carey wears his signature goofy appeal, which is sized just right for a prime time sit-com - possibly even for a silly, one-joke SNL movie.

But the film Peter Weir has wrapped around Carey is light-years beyond sit-com reality. It's not the introspective shallows of Seinfeld asking himself why Kramer is always in his apartment. No, it's more like realizing everybody inhabiting this verdant isle of Seahaven is on somebody's payroll, and that somebody is not your friend. It's as if Francis Ford Coppola had cast Jerry Lewis in Gene Hackman's role in "The Conversation."

We barge in on Truman feeling the first itch of wanderlust. (By WE, I mean, the WE even above creator Christof's level of consciousness, because WE can even observe mere followers of The Truman Show, as well as the schizophrenic lives of the regular actors/characters in the show, and even inside poor Truman, where a human being is longing to break out of his role as the center of the universe.) We watch Carey visit the travel office in Seahaven, where posters of aircraft in flames, warnings of foreign diseases and violent coups d'etat on the travel office's TV monitor could easily distract someone from the temptations of tourism. Even the travel office saleslady convinces him there's no place like home. This is how Weir and his creative cast enjoy poking fun at the norms of human existence beyond Seahaven. Still, Truman persists in testing the limits of his totally secure environment.

Seahaven is itself a satire on The American Dream brought to us by Frank Capra and Walt Disney. To add a twist in the labyrinth of reality here: Seahaven is not a sound stage but, rather, a real live planned community - if that's not an oxymoron - in Florida created for people who want to live in a Disneyesque version of Nice Neo-Victoriana where every last blade of grass is controlled by Community Standards. And the standards are within a two-degree scope of aesthetic creativity. Every house has a picket fence and it's white. Every cottage is storybook pretty but it's the same story. Every porch has a swing and a couple to not swing in it. So if you think Truman's got it good and oughta just shut up and enjoy his fifteen minutes - have we got a designed community for you!

It is this eery 1950s perfection that Peter Weir renders threatening for The Truman Show, just as he used the mysterious cliffs in "Picnic at Hanging Rock," or water in "The Last Wave," or adolescence in "The Dead Poet's Society," or the military command structure in "Gallipoli." Peter Weir makes movies about minority groups or small social units that are threatened by some vast, inhuman, decision-making reality that they can never really penetrate. Or if they do, it is only to understand how they are to die, but not why.

Thus, as Truman begins to realize that there are cameras everywhere - behind the bathroom mirror, in his ring, in his wife's necklace, in his basement, in the buoy bobbing in the water, etc. - Truman's paranoia is justified and his distrust of his fellow actor/characters isolates him in a lonely quest for reality. But Truman never gets the big picture: that he, Truman, is used to support a vast capitalist enterprise - a branded lifestyle, the Truman lifestyle that everybody's in on but Truman.

Suspension of disbelief demands only that we ignore all SAG, FCC and legal impediments to a corporation adopting an unwanted child and constructing a world around him for the purposes of product placement. Weir makes it clear: on this child's head hang the commercial aspirations of peddlars of a squeaky clean American life style.

And on the head of Jim Carrey hang the laurels of this mordant satire of America's love affair with the TV series. Carrey's style of comedy depends heavily on a sit-com sensibility: his rubbery face is like its own laugh- track, telling us when to be happy with him, sad with him, confused, etc., but these expressions are the stock in trade of physical comedy stretching back centuries to comedia dell' arte. Carrey carries it off masterfully, permitting his comedic persona to be the butt of this subversive film.

In a very different way, Ed Harris is subversive of the business of television. As Christof, the producer and fascistic mastermind of The Truman Show, Harris brings his militaristic profile and disciplinarian persona. Harris/Christof loves Truman. The only thing he loves more than Truman is The Truman Show. The cinematography gets darkly surreal in that Dr. Strangelove kind of way, whenever Christof makes an appearance as the ego behind the show, and Harris puffs that ego up to the divine dimensions that Hollywood producers reserve for themselves.

Anybody who has ever followed a hit TV show season after season knows how fanatic people get. The characters become more real than the actors. The places - the bar Cheers or The Pondarosa - become part of the cultural landscape, often becoming more poweful in affect than the real one, i.e. Dallas. TheTV show put Texas on the map. So that's part of what the film,The Truman Show, makes clear to anybody thinking about moving to a planned community.

Perhaps the movie is just a repository of actors acting, as in Noah Emmerich's role as The Best Friend, Marlon. This is the guy who shows up at your house with a six-pack whenever you're feeling blue. This is the pal who would never betray you and tells you that, in the very moment he's cashing in (friends of Bill Clinton?) as Your Best Friend. Emmerich delivers a self-abnegating portrayal of guy-friendship, all the scarier because the guy knows he's not a friend but, hey! it's OK, it can be excused, because - grunt! - it's a guy thing.

It is the apotheosis of television itself to star in The Truman Show as today's ultimate existential dilemma. Several movies have recently tried to delve into the reality offered by television in lieu of any verifiably more real world. The Truman Show grants the existence of a real world unknown to Truman, beyond the control of Christof, but the jury's out on whether it's better or not. Perhaps Truman will go there, only to join scores of TV- celebrity has-beens who were too dumb to keep their TV shows alive.

The ideal reviewer of this movie is Jerry Seinfeld - in about six months. - Karen Jaehne

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