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Movies

M O V I E   R E V I E W


Review: Carrey quite good, but 'The Truman Show' falls short

Strip for the Movie June 9, 1998
Web posted at: 12:11 a.m. EDT (0411 GMT)

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- When is a satire not really a satire, or, more specifically, what is Jim Carrey's hugely praised (and often quite enjoyable) new movie, "The Truman Show," really about? Despite elaborate trappings that would suggest otherwise, I strongly suspect that it's not really about much of anything at all.

Though we're in a minority, I'm not the first person to posit this theory. Both "New York" magazine's David Denby (who's about as good as they get) and "New York Times" critic Janet Maslin have questioned the less-than-insightful content of "The Truman Show."

But pretty much every other writer has fallen into rhapsodic spasms over the post-modern "brilliance" of what Carrey, director Peter Weir, and screenwriter Andrew Niccol have concocted for our summer devourment. The American public, predisposed to fawning as they are, will almost certainly ignore or chastise the critics who dare to point out the non-existent bottom of this movie, and that makes more of a point about the vapidness of a viewing audience than anything that's on display in the movie itself.

I've seen people take this trip before, and it went by the name of "Forrest Gump," so I know I'm in for another losing battle. That multizillion-dollar-grossing movie, you may recall, argued that the turmoil of recent American history -- everything from the escalation of the Vietnam War to John Lennon's senseless murder - can be readily digested and forgotten if you're truly committed to not thinking about it all that much in the first place.

Forrest is dumb as a bag of hammers, and ends up surviving in high style because of it. Realizing that someone was finally telling them it's OK to not ponder the nastier aspects of our lives, or, better yet, that you're somehow blessed if you're incapable of digging beneath the surface of troubling events, people just ate it up. It was a Reagan-era movie that somehow hit our screens a few years after the fact -- lack of moral courage had once again been lionized for big profits.

I think "The Truman Show" is a vastly superior film to "Forrest Gump," but it suffers from the same easily chewable veneer of righteousness. Its so-called payoffs derive from an interesting setup that then gets virtually ignored as we barrel towards the inevitable "triumph of the human spirit" climax. It's a feel-good movie, but I'd be hard pressed to explain what it is that the audience is supposed to feel so damn good about, except that they've been told, once again, that their vices are actually virtues.

Carrey stars as Truman Burbank, a 30-year-old man who doesn't realize that every moment of his life, from his job to his wife to the very town he grew up in, is part of a 24-hour-a-day TV show. Outside of the literally domed universe that he lives in, people gather around their televisions and ogle him in his most private moments. They saw his birth, watched him as he fell in love in college, and now peek in on his "marriage" (like everyone else in his life, his wife is an actress) and debate what move he'll make next. The creator of the show, who's none-too-subtly named Christof, watches the action through 5,000 hidden cameras, directing the story by whispering instructions into microphones that are planted in the ears of the "extras" in Truman's life.

Publicity releases have been trumpeting this as Carrey's first shot at a serious film role for over a year now, and I'm glad to see that he delivers. There are a couple of quick, unfortunate moments of tongue waggling, but Truman is a sympathetic, quietly formulated character. As I've already said, I enjoyed some of the movie, and most of that enjoyment stems from Carrey's perceptive, slowly growing awareness of what's happening to him.

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The sequence in which he starts realizing that all he has to do to stop entire lanes of traffic is stand in the street and raise his arms, and that everyone in his life seems to be carefully positioned around him for maximum effect at any given moment, is actually pretty chilling. You have to wonder, though, how Truman (who has more heart and insight than anyone else in his life) could have managed to avoid noticing this bizarre setup during the previous 30 years of his existence.

I realize that this is a fantasy film, and, for that, you have to cut it some slack, but I was eventually forced (just as I was with Niccol's previous script, "Gattaca") to start cutting the slack some slack. The moments of foolishness start piling up so quickly here, you eventually just throw your hands up and decide to ride it out. For instance, during the last part of the movie, when Truman finally decides to make a clandestine run for it, Christof (played as well as could be expected by Ed Harris) leaps into a panic because they can't find his baby, his creation.

Evidently Christof has forgotten about the 5,000 cameras that have enabled him to pull this stunt off for the past quarter of a century, so he enlists the "cast" of Truman's life to march down Main Street together, shining flashlights and shouting Truman's name. When Truman is finally discovered trying to make his break via a sailboat out on the ocean, the means of discovery is ... a camera! It doesn't make any sense, but, gee, it looked real neat when everybody went patrolling that one street in a vast, completely controlled world that has served as the backdrop to Truman's existence from day one.

It's just as contrived as Truman's sudden realization that his wife (played by Laura Linney) is partial to product placement, spouting off commercials for the cocoa she's serving him (or whatever) in their own kitchen. It's an amusing joke, but the fact that the circumstances of the story make it wholly unbelievable should have been enough to nix it.

Like the recent Michael Douglas "life is an elaborate practical joke" vehicle, "The Game," "The Truman Show" is a neat little idea that amounts to nothing more than an extended episode of "The Twilight Zone" if you aren't willing to pick up the ball and run with it, and Weir and Niccol aren't about to do that.

What the story should be about, if it wants to make any kind of satirical point, is that country full of bozos who sit there watching Truman instead of living their own lives. But God forbid you should start dissecting that mindset. It might upset the people sitting in the theater (who are getting bigger and better voyeuristic jollies in the comfort of their own living rooms every day), and, when that happens, there goes your box office.

Truman's TV-viewing audience, who we get nothing but cursory glances at, are simply blobs staring at a tube. The effect, from a movie theater seat, is of vacant people watching vacant people watching vacant people. The movie continually winks at the audience, telling them how smart they are, but it simultaneously circumscribes its own ambitions for fear of losing them.

It'll make a mint.

"The Truman Show" will probably be the most thought-provoking "big" movie to come out this summer, and that says a whole lot more about other movies than it does about this one. You should, however, see it for Carrey's newly unveiled charms. There's very little about it that would be detrimental to the well-being of small children, a pretty telling detail for what's supposedly a highly illuminating piece of work. Rated PG. 104 minutes, including an altogether abrupt ending.

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