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Review: Carrey's On-Screen Charisma Stuns in "The Truman Show"

June 10, 1998|By Jason Myers

Jason Myers

In Shel Silverstein's poem "Jimmy Jet And His TV Set," a young boy watches television so often he turns into a TV set. Silverstein's surreal wit gently disguises the allegory. It's a simple piece, as much great art is, and yet it is more perfectly satirical and mocking of our televisual culture than any other work - until now.

Behold, "The Truman Show," the best movie you'll see this decade. Oh, maybe that's hyperbole. But I doubt it. No movie this side of 1989 has been so consummate in plotting, direction, concept, idea, humor or passion. I should know, I rarely spout on this long about a film's merits. I spend my time finding clever turns of phrase to attack the mediocrity of movies. But "The Truman Show" is one of those rare cinematic works. It leaves you speechless. For two hours, it engages you more intensely than a murder trial.

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Because something else is being tried - the soul of America. This bold and brilliant film is about the uncanny way in which television has so slyly consumed us that we do not even realize anymore how transfixed we are.

Witness Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), an average suburbanite who drives a sedan and toils in his garden and sells insurance and sleeps with his wife (Laura Linney). A most extraordinarily ordinary man. One thing is exceptional about him, however.

All this complacency and contentment is manufactured. It's a facade, a fake, a fix. This pleasant little shore-side town in which he has lived all his 30 years is nothing but a gigantic Hollywood soundstage - the only man-made structure beside the Great Wall of China that is visible from space. Every house is a set and every resident is an actor or extra.

Truman's entire life - every 24 hours of some 10,000 days - has been broadcast to billions of global viewers. Every event from birth through the agony of maturity has been conceived by Christof (Ed Harris), a parody of pretentious European directors with his beret and sharp spectacles.

Wife, mother (Holland Taylor), best friend and beer buddy (Noah Emmerich) are all working from improvisation and product placement. (Since "The Truman Show" has no commercial interruptions, characters must gradually promote a certain beer or coffee bean.)

Truman is slowly becoming aware, however, that something is strange in Seahaven. The sunsets are a little too splendid, the denizens more delightful than neccesary, and those elevators with sound stages behind them are quite quizzical.

At first he suspects some cosmic conspiracy involving the return of his father (Brian Delate), who apparently drowned when a boating venture with young Truman was ravaged by a severe storm. In actuality, he was written off the show for dramatic impact, and he departed in the fashion he did to incur a fear in Truman so he never would want to leave the island.

Now, though, he wants to go to Fiji. He is bored by the smiling surety of his wife and his life, and longs for The Girl That Got Away (Natasha McElhone).

In one of the most vivid and smart romances in recent cinema, we follow Truman in a flashback to his college years, in which his lust for Lauren (McElhone) is suddenly thwarted when, as they kiss in the moonlight on the beach, a car comes careening across the sand and whisks her away. The driver claims to be her father and tells Truman that he is moving the family to Fiji.

When Truman inquires about traveling there, the agent informs him that she does not have anything available for a month - "It's a really busy season."

This film's wicked wit, subtle and sardonic, might elude some. A man sitting in front of me claimed "The Truman Show" to be "the worst @#$%ing movie" he had ever seen. This certainly is not a film for those who enjoy the simple pleasures of nudity, violence and inanity.

Peter Weir's films are blessedly complex. They are rarely difficult or intricate - "The Truman Show" is easily his most labyrinthian labor - but they always have many emotional and intellectual layers.

"Dead Poets Society" - one of my favorite films - features the sacrifice of a youth who adorns his head with a laurel wreath before taking his life. "Fearless" features Jeff Bridges' emotional resurrection.

"The Truman Show" is more directly theological than any of his previous films, however. It is about our modern altar, the Magnavox.

What is so clever and caustic about the film, wonderfully written by Andrew Niccol ("Gattaca"), is that it shows us not just the television show and its masterminds, but the audience as well. The people who laugh and cry and sit hour after hour, mesmerized by melodrama.

The film shows us ourselves and allows us to laugh with, not at, Jim Carrey. Have I mentioned what a delicate, disarming comic performance he gives? Have I discussed the irony of Peter Biziou's pastel photography, the seamless and spellbinding editing of William Anderson, the sensuality of the film, the passion and spontaneity it exudes and exults, the intelligence and intuitiveness of every scene? Have I convinced you to see it, and then see it again?

Jason Myers will graduate from North Hagerstown High School Friday.

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