The Truman Show (1998)

D: Peter Weir
S: Jim Carrey, Laura Linney, Ed Harris

A child raised to adulthood as the unwitting star of a reality-based television programme running twenty four hours and day seven days a week becomes suspicious after a series of small events which hint something is unusual about the world around him.

Well meaning but poorly scripted yarn written by Andrew Niccol and directed by Peter Weir which gives Jim Carrey his first opportunity to play relatively straight (albeit in a world which is inherently zany and unreal to begin with). Concept driven from the outset, the film can't overcome the basic problem that its focus on one-dimensional characters in a counterfeit, postmodern, televisual world means that there is a lack of human drama to drive the story. It becomes an extended Twilight Zone episode with a dose of early seventies science-fiction cerebralness which does not serve it well. Promising themes and ideas are not drawn out through the plot and character, but rather assumed to be inherent to the exposition of the premise (Truman lives in an idealised but artificial world controlled by people who don't care about him as a person, but as a commodity or an icon only). The result is vague and unsatisfying and leaves the impression of having been a great trailer in search of a movie.

Director Weir is often intrigued by stories of unique individuals in unique environments, and frequently delivers thought provoking popular entertainments (Witness, The Mosquito Coast, Fearless). Writer Niccol is clearly interested in ideas about alienation at the end of the millennium, evinced in his own Gattaca. Between them they have found a subject worth expansion and likely to produce interesting debate for scholars of the era. But despite the level of investment of talent and energy which has gone into this film, there is something fundamentally lazy about the execution. It is not in the details, or in the level of commitment or technical prowess which has gone into its making. It's not even Carrey's fault, though he was the industry whipping boy after the failure of The Cable Guy. The problem lies in the structural choice made by Niccol and Weir in exposing Truman's world to us.

The film begins with some brief insights into the people 'behind the show' which presumably sets a context for the film that will allow us to contrast the 'real' with the 'unreal' and perhaps examine the conflicts and contradictions which drive it. But it then progresses to an extended first-person exposition of the peculiarities of Truman's life, seen entirely from Carrey's point of view. In the manner of an hour-long sci-fi compendium series, this works reasonably well, though there is a frustrating lack of genuine tension and there is obviously little to no character development other than that of the 'star' himself (no one else can have realisations if they're merely playing parts). Finally when we are treated to a view behind the curtain to the world of the show's creator/director Ed Harris about an hour later (clumsily introduced through an interview with reporter Harry Shearer), there is a disappointing level of explanation and exposition rather than forward momentum in terms of the basic story. This revelation comes only after the story's initial crisis seems to have been overcome, as Truman's curiosity about his world is presumably neutralised by the return of his 'dead' father, leaving little reason for the journey to the outside other than exposition, which is boring from a dramatic point of view, though again interesting as conceptual material. When we then return to Truman's world, it is to an abrupt climax where we discover he has not been convinced after all and embarks on a mythical/metaphoric journey to the edge of the world and a disappointingly muted and simplistic confrontation with his real 'father', Harris.

There is no real conflict or drama here. A contrived sub-plot about people in the 'real' world who actively rebel against the exploitation of Truman is given scant attention (the motivations of these characters are not sufficiently explored in terms of moral action). Indeed the world outside the Truman stage is seriously underdeveloped (though not completely ignored, which is the frustrating thing about it). On the inside, the people around Truman do little to nothing that is not scripted to be tedious and uninteresting, and the result, not surprisingly, is that the supporting characters are tedious and uninteresting. Though Truman's increasingly hostile relationship with his wife (Laura Linney) eventually causes the actress to scream about 'unprofessionalism', Linney is given no chance to explore the problems which her character must presumably be facing under the circumstances. She is one-dimensional because she's supposed to be, and the film feels it is unnecessary to expand on this type of characterisation because the frames of reference of the story are so firmly subjective (from Truman's point of view). But the result is that nothing is of interest other than Truman himself, and unfortunately, he's not very interesting either. The conventional 1950s generic suburban fantasy world he inhabits is neither as creepily satirical as Tim Burton's town in Edward Scissorhands nor as outright funny as it seems intended to be (on a smarmy, in-jokey level). The character himself is not believable, and seems to come to a sudden realisation which given the controlled environment in which he has been raised would be unlikely. Neither is he particularly likable, and Carrey's performance comes too close to his own brand of broad silly comedy to be acceptable as the natural result of being raised in a world like the one which has been set up for him. Therefore the film fails on every count once past its own premise, and though it seems to be thoughtful and discursive, it is actually nothing more than a short which has veered wildly out of control (a bit like George Lucas' THX-1138, to which it bears some similarity).

The film has some good scenes. On the day he makes his big discovery, Truman's frenzied attempt to behave irrationally and cause panic among the conspirators who surround him produces some good moments (the shot where he stops traffic as the camera cranes overhead is quite dramatic). But the gag is then over extended, with an emphasis on repeating the basic idea over and over again (he tests the limits of his world and find it responds to him) in a feeble attempt to both extend the period of time over which the realisation occurs and manufacture dramatic action (his virtual kidnapping of Linney and attempt to drive past the town limits). But lacking sufficient depth to increase the emotional stakes, these scenes eventually become tedious, just as the climax aboard a yacht bound for the edge of the stage is noisy and presumed to be exciting when it is merely routine. There are some amusing moments (though for a supposedly 'dramatic' film, there is little which stands out which is not comedic), and it is obviously put together and played with some care and attention (Harris tries very hard to exert a strong but quiet presence as one of the few 'real' people in the movie).

This is the kind of film which critics and scholars can spend hours and weeks making clever observations on (hmmm...isn't that what I'm doing?) without it actually being any good in itself. The bottom line is that The Truman Show is nowhere near as interesting as a film than it is as an idea, and even as an idea, it is somewhat second hand, descended from the paranoid sci-fi world of The Twilight Zone and The Prisoner. It lacks real bite and is ultimately a typical postmodern tail-chaser in the manner of Deconstructing Harry and Natural Born Killers, a film which is almost impossible to criticise because its superficial, artificial and contrived nature may well be a parody of itself which defies the adoption of a critical position relative to it. Yet while Deconstructing Harry had its humour and Natural Born Killers had its vicious shock tactics, The Truman Show has little ammunition with which to sustain audience interest other than the novelty of Carrey in the lead, which may be as repulsive as it is attractive, depending on your disposition. This is finally a rather tedious and inexplicably overrated film which is probably going to prove one of the keystone films of the 1990s. That says it all, really.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.