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The Free Willies 

Wednesday, Jun 3 1998
The Truman Show
Directed by Peter Weir. Written by Andrew Niccol. Starring Jim Carrey, Laura Linney, and Ed Harris. Opens Friday, June 5, at area theaters.

Audiences have grown accustomed to commercial onslaughts for spectacles like Godzilla. A subtler, more insidious kind of advertising has been designed for The Truman Show. The studio used the music from Forrest Gump on the coming attractions. Then came the massive early print ads, featuring an attention-hungry quote from Esquire calling it "the movie of the decade." The campaign is multiple-climaxing right now with a barrage of raves not just from reviewers in newsweeklies and dailies, but also from pundits and op-ed columnists. Even before the public premiere, the movie has become the equivalent of NBC's yuppie-directed "must-see TV" -- an ironic fate for a film that means to decry media control over our everyday lives. But there's a chance the filmmakers won't get by with it. Unlike Seinfeld, The Truman Show isn't "about" nothing. It is nothing.

Middle Americans gravitated to Gump because he provided them with an updated fantasy of the good heart and simple soul who can endure historical calamities by staying true to himself. In The Truman Show, Jim Carrey plays another white soul survivor. This guy has the Gump-like name of Truman Burbank: "Truman" for Harry Truman, the paragon of Midwestern plain speaking, and "Burbank" either for Luther Burbank, the horticulturist who pioneered brave new worlds of fruits and vegetables (not couch potatoes), or the town of Burbank -- the home of TV networks and movie studios.

Truman is the test-tube version of Gump, the center of the 24-hour-a-day TV show that gives the movie its name. He was born in front of a camera, and almost dies in front of a camera. Adopted at birth by an entertainment corporation, he has matured into all-American adulthood on an island suburb that's actually an enormous sound-stage, built right outside of Hollywood. His experience is totally bounded by the verite action on the set. He doesn't know he's in the middle of a never-ending soap opera with a cast of hundreds being televised to an enthralled global audience. He thinks it's his life. It's all overseen by a calculating visionary named Christof (Ed Harris). This imitation Christo has conceived Truman's role and cast all the supporting players with trained actors, including Truman's wife (Laura Linney) and mother (Holland Taylor).

Playing Truman Burbank is the easiest, most obvious kind of stretch for Jim Carrey. He basically gets to be the straight man for a community -- no, an industry. We see Truman respond to Christof's stimuli as the director controls and targets what goes on with an intricate network of mikes and cameras. You grasp most of this immediately; slow learners can catch up during an extended explanation scene an hour in.

Truman's home turf is an advertising-driven, PG version of Mr. Rogers' neighborhood. (The movie gives a pass to sex and scatology.) Everybody is homogenized, no matter what their race, color, or creed. And Christof and his minions cater to each of Truman's needs. He consumes brand-name goods cunningly placed in front of the camera, in lieu of conventional commercials. Christof gives Truman a cute-as-a-button spouse -- to us, she beams like a death ray -- and a new romantic partner waiting in the wings.

What Christof can't slake is Truman's hunger for authenticity. Truman takes in stride mechanical mishaps like a plummeting piece of lighting or a storm that rains only on him. But the surprise reappearance of the disgruntled actor who played Truman's dad throws our hero off-balance. Twenty years before, as a child, Truman thought he saw Pa drown -- a trauma that turned him aquaphobic and helps keep him on the island. Suddenly, the adult Truman attunes himself to the TV show's glitches, like the communication lines coming in over his car radio. We're maneuvered into cheering Truman on as he uncovers Christof's master plan -- while Christof tries to camouflage it.

The movie itself is a media artifact -- it incessantly keeps reminding you of other TV shows, from An American Family to The Real World, and other movies, too, from Gump to THX 1138. Outside of its bland assertion of a construct -- a life watched on TV -- it doesn't do anything with it, or say anything about society, having sex, or going to the bathroom. Ultimately, the movie has nothing to say about the relationship between the viewing public and its icons, or about the quality of life in our late-20th-century videodrome. It's little more than the rah-rah adventure of an average Joe breaking through crippling conventions and asserting his free will. Remember John Travolta in the TV film The Boy in the Plastic Bubble? A victim of a medical syndrome rather than a corporate strategy, he also led a cloistered life, and at one point spun out a piece of whimsy about coming from a distant planet. But Travolta managed to suggest complex emotions along the way, and the sappy ending, in which the boy risked death to be with the girl next door, didn't leave you feeling as empty as the conclusion of The Truman Show. This portrait of an innately good-hearted naif who triumphs over video artifice is sentimental and vacant. It can give you the free willies.

Just how daring is it, anyway? Decades ago, FCC Chairman Newton Minow called television "the vast wasteland." This movie merely ups the ante, treating TV as a millennial version of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land -- the symbol and cause of a barren Western civilization. The Truman Show never develops beyond its own conceited conceit. This may be "A Peter Weir Film," but its auteur is the screenwriter, Andrew Niccol, who has launched a supposedly brilliant career by re-jiggering Twilight Zone episodes as big-studio art movies. Niccol wrote and directed last year's soporific Gattaca, which was a bloated variation on the Twilight Zone episode about generic beauty, "Number Twelve Looks Just Like You"; his script for The Truman Show resembles the one about the astronaut in a home environment that turns out to be a zoo, "People Are Alike All Over," crossed with "Five Characters in Search of an Exit." These episodes were tight, logical, and unpretentious compared to The Truman Show.

The narrative is a series of stumbles and letdowns, including Truman's epiphany that he's the dupe in a giant setup. The event that should have jarred Truman out of complacency occurs in a flashback to his college years. The love of his life (and apparently the repository of all virtue) tells him that his existence is a sham. Then, before his very eyes, she's whisked away -- ostensibly to Fiji. If he didn't heed her warning, why would the resurrected Dad disturb Truman so decisively? There's no accounting for what happens in The Truman Show as real-life drama. The whole movie is as flimsy and as awkwardly pseudo-spontaneous as the TV-show-within-the-film.

The only way to have fun is to stop worrying and love the prestidigitation. But Weir and Niccol flatter the film audience into imagining itself superior to the riveted television-watchers in the movie's clumsy reaction shots. It's aesthetic suicide: They want us to feel the pathos of Truman's heartbreak and frustration, the tug of his quest to escape, and still not get hooked on Christof's exploitative crap. As a movie, The Truman Show is kitsch with a college education: postmodern filigree for graduates willing to take derisive doodling as social satire.

The best gags are transitory, like the anti-travel travel agency adorned with posters about the dangers of terrorism and lightning. Yet the affable throwaways also add to an aura of free-floating opportunism. Yes, it's funny to see the fowl in a logo for "Kaiser"-brand poultry posed in a ridiculous goose step. But what does it mean? That Christof and his backers know they're fascists? Astonishingly, this film has been praised for its control. Maybe that's because it expresses rebellion in Gump-like white-bread terms. Truman, the clean-cut, well-behaved 6-footer who wishes everyone "Good afternoon, good evening, and good night," takes charge of himself and leaves his gilded cage. The movie never grapples with the idea that what he might find on the outside is Reagan's "Morning in America." Or something worse: a population so coldly addicted to TV that it demands human sacrifice.

The Truman Show is a trap for self-styled intellectuals -- if you groove on the, you know, concept, you may not notice that it precludes any human revelation or genuine performance. (The usually reliable Harris does most of his acting with his beret.) Carrey comports himself with workmanlike restraint. There's only one posterior-to-the-camera shot, and it seems put here to proclaim, "This is the Jim Carrey movie in which he doesn't talk with his buttocks." Carrey's last hit, Liar Liar, was also heralded as a stretch for him; in reality, except for the hilarious "kicking my ass" sequence, it was a maudlin, slapstick makeover of Kramer vs. Kramer.

Carrey may have the chops to become a versatile leading man, but so far he's been at his best as a comic-book anti-hero in The Mask -- a semi-animated wild man in a gleefully cartoonish world. In The Truman Show, Carrey is woefully miscast as the one real guy in town; everyone else takes cues from his plasticity. And he doesn't get to break loose and sound any of his one-of-a-kind bass notes. He's a sometimes-inspired low comic enslaved to a banal high concept.

About The Author

Michael Sragow


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