A 1984 for the millennium, The Truman Show opens with a fat hint at the nature of the game it's about to play. Then it backs off and gulls us, winking all the way, into a trusting innocence not unlike the innocence, laced with mounting unease, of its waggishly named hero, Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey). A compulsively chipper insurance drone carrying a woebegone briefcase that bespeaks no prospects, Truman is plagued by vague suspicions that all is not right – or is it too right? – with his fanatically normal life in Seahaven, a sun-washed resort town that looks like a cross between Levittown and a jumbo Ozzie and Harriet set.
Truman has long dreamed of fleeing the coop for Fiji, where his high school crush, Lauren (lifelessly rendered by Natascha McElhone, a wide-eyed beauty with damask skin and no discernible wish to act), may be living. His escape fantasy is fed by the increasingly strange behavior of his nearest and dearest: his flighty mother (Holland Taylor); his affable childhood pal, Marlon (Noah Emmerich); and his wife, Meryl (played to hysterical perfection by Tales of the City alum Laura Linney), a bushy-tailed consumerist whose mad smirk is spiked with a punishing basilisk stare – she's Donna Reed by way of Nurse Ratched.
For a while I thought I was watching a rough cut of The Truman Show, not because the movie looks unfinished (it's as cleverly put together as its subject, the perfectly controlled pseudo-environment) but because the director, Peter Weir, keeps slipping stuff in – a shot framed by a lens, a rain shower that falls only on Truman – that's meant to undercut our credulity just a heartbeat ahead of our hero's. Truman's world is cracking like an egg about to hatch, until finally he catches on to what everyone else already knows: The life he thought he was leading is actually a soap opera, watched around the clock by millions of eager viewers and presided over by Christof, a shadowy maestro in rimless glasses and auteur's beret. Played with slimy restraint by Ed Harris, Christof comes closer to Orwell's vision of millennial executive power than to the brash, yelling suits of Network or Quiz Show (or, for that matter, to the brash, yelling Scott Rudin, who co-produced The Truman Show). Next to a malevolent dictator, there's nothing more insidious than one with good intentions: The scariest thing about Big Brother Christof is not that he's remote and devious, but that he genuinely believes himself to be the benefactor of the 30-year-old Pinocchio he's raised from birth.
If this sounds grim, it's not. At the level of design, The Truman Show is an exquisitely engineered escape yarn with the razor edge of comic horror that, at his best, has made Weir an inspiration to a whole generation – Jane Campion and Alison MacLean among them – of equally warped Australian and New Zealand filmmakers. Between the cracks of Seahaven's perky pastels and ubiquitous jollity grows the desperate fury of a man trapped in a paradise from hell, and no one does desperate fury better than Jim Carrey. It's hard to believe that the script, handily crafted by Andrew Niccol (who also wrote and directed Gattaca), wasn't written with the comedian in mind.
Much ink will be spilled in reviews of this movie about Carrey's expanding range as a serious actor. There's never been anything remotely “wacky” about Carrey. He's always serious, perhaps never more than when he's being a cutup. As the hapless Truman he's doing (brilliantly) what he always does, which is to register opposing emotions while using his rubber features to flag which of them is bogus. With his fresh face and Bugs Bunny overbite, Carrey can do wholesome boy-next-door – up to the point when the manic court jester within boils over into rage (“Somebody help me, I'm being spontaneous!”) as Truman tries to break out of his velvet prison, blocked at every turn by townsfolk who now reveal themselves as actors marching to the tune of Christof.
If Christof is the avatar of the creepy authoritarianism behind television's sunny smile (he's Bill Cosby without the charm), Truman represents the anger of those compelled to wear it.
For a Hollywood movie, especially in these dismal days of the blockbuster, to be putting the screws to its closest sibling may seem like the pot blackening the kettle. Yet for all that the two media share the same bottom-lining masters, film was for a long time a freer spirit than television, which was fiercely regulated, not just by the FCC but by the advertising base that forced programmers to shape viewers into mir-ror images of the citizens of Seahaven – a great, impressionable middle-class mass with wallets at the ready – to become model consumers. (In the movie, Meryl's efforts to calm her increasingly agitated husband with cocoa segue hilariously into product placement.) Regulated only by a weak and capricious MPAA, movies were uniquely positioned to blow television's cover. Like Network and Quiz Show before it, The Truman Show addresses the rage and anxiety that bubble beneath television's surface of conformist good cheer.
Good cheer, thank God, is a scarcer commodity on television these days than it was in its formative years. As a judgment on television at the end of the century, Truman is hopelessly stuck in the '50s – and just plain wrong. Even if Weir is using television as a metaphor for power in general, his vision holds up no better than Orwell's nightmarish prognosis for 1984, which in retrospect seems overwrought. Weir may be a fabulous stylist – The Truman Show toys amusingly with our '90s fantasies of a Rockwellian past – but as a thinker he's as muddled as he was in the horribly misguided, protofascist populism of Dead Poets Society. Far from being a centralized monolith, television – jazzed into ornery pluralism by the collapse of network monopoly – is not only its own best critic, but also arguably a more subversive force than film. Bulworth aside, what films have you seen lately that approach the whiplash iconoclasm of Seinfeld, The Larry Sanders Show or even Spin City?
In the end, Weir's movie is more a capitulation than a challenge to television, and a vulgar one at that. Truman turns out to be more Burbank than he is True-man. For unlike the soap opera (like life, an endless stream of unresolved trouble) that has framed the movie, The Truman Show apes the TV movie, a generic mutant that welds together mass-market film and television at their most banal and mindlessly inspirational. “There's no more truth out there than there is in here,” Christof warns Truman as his creation debates whether to break through the fourth wall and enter the unsupervised life.
He's right: Truman's odyssey, cheered on by the devoted fans who have adopted his show as a “lifestyle,” is 98 percent sentimental Hollywood glop. What else, from the director of Green Card? The other 2 percent, delivered in a final disclaiming chortle, signals a cynicism not only about the conditioned emotional response, but about our capacity as viewers to sustain feeling, and especially feeling for. In the Truman world, the shelf life of empathy is as short as a couch potato's attention span.