Film Reviews:

The Truman Show

(Peter Weir, US, 1998)

We're in picturesque small town America and inhabitant Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) goes about his daily routine. Cut to sign: "Day 10,909". For the last 30 years, Truman has been the subject of the world's largest version of Big Brother. Unbeknownst to him, Truman is actually living inside a vast, self-contained TV studio - even the sky is fake so the programmers can have total control over the weather. Truman has lived in this artificial environment since being a baby, and as the objective of the top-rating show is not to let slip to Truman that he isn't living in the real world, the production company, headed by the enigmatic and charismatic Christoph (Ed Harris), go to extraordinary lengths to keep Truman under control and pulling in both those huge global audiences and mountains of sponsorship money. But at the start of day 10,909, a studio light falls from its housing way up on high and lands at the feet of Truman. It is the beginning of a sequence of events during which Truman's entire life will face traumatic upheaval.

Critics and audiences (and then Hollywood itself once it had a clear signal from the market) were full of praise for Australian director Peter Weir's refreshing film. Refreshing because it is relatively original, well scripted, well cast, well made and well directed. Clearly, for once then, all was well! Although those brought up on anything but a diet of exclusively Hollywood product perhaps won't find this quite as ground breaking as some of the US critics in particular would have us believe, it is still certainly well worth considerable praise.

The biggest single problem for some will be the casting of Jim Carrey in the lead role, who, after the script has him be both funny and charming so as to ingratiate him with the audience, plays the role for what it is which is full of pathos and largely straight. As uneven a movie as it was, The Cable Guy at least proved that there was more to Carrey's acting ability than fulfilling endless goofball comedy roles. The Truman Show is well-suited to his wider repertoire and this, probably more than any other film he has made that attempts to wrestle him free from his comedy past, finally gave him the chance to be taken seriously as a straight leading man. (Although as subsequent history, and particularly The Majestic, has demonstrated this was to be short-lived).

That Harris was brought onto the production with literally just a few days notice and virtually no character preparation time makes his impressive performance all the more so. Carrey (and director Weir) manage to keep the smaltczh in check and the result comes across with some of the Capraesque qualities that Groundhog Day also displays (although the latter deliberately has more laughs), and for that matter the more recent Pleasantville. Weir manages to weave in commentary on a diverse range of issues with consummate ease. My favourite is when we discover that there are no commercial breaks on the show, due to the revenue being generated by product placement within Truman's world. The placement opportunities presumably fueling a price bidding war between potential advertisers willing to pay millions for their product to appear in the show. Better still is the knowledge that viewers can place orders for everything from the products Truman uses, to the clothes he wears, even the house he lives in. Worringly, this is probably not as ridiculous as it initially sounds.

Obvious questions such as "how do they stop him from travelling outside the limits of the world they have created for him?" are not only addressed but are acknowledged from the opening moments when the faulty light lands at Truman's feet. "One of the perils of flying" says a neighbour neatly adding to Truman's paranoia about travel. Furthermore, Truman's fear of using the only bridge that would take him off the peninsula he is living on is cleverly scripted as being based around his father drowning when the two were out boating when Truman was a little boy. [SPOILER ALERT! THE NEXT SENTENCE GIVES AWAY PART OF THE ENDING] This also provides the film with its coup de grace when faced with Truman's increasing curiosity and rising confidence in overcoming his boyhood demons by crossing the bridge (which would lead him to the edge of his world), Christoph is forced to resurrect Truman's dead father (in true soap opera fashion!) to shock him back into his previously submissive role. Brilliant. [SPOILER OVER!] Topped off by a rich soundtrack by Burkhard von Dallwitz, that also features extracts from Philip Glass' score for Mishima (among others) and some classical pieces woven in for good measure, and Weir's familiar stylish production techniques, The Truman Show is a welcome hit that proves in Hollywood the dumbest and least original ideas need not have any exclusivity over the box office. 7/10

Rob Dyer (July 2003)

See also:

The Prisoner (TV series)

A-Z of Film Reviews