A clever but empty movie that is rapidly turning into the most overpraised picture of the year, The Truman Show is about a young man who lives in a small town by the sea with houses as white as … well, as white as the new teeth that wealthy people seem to grow when they turn 60. The gleaming houses of this theme-park paradise are decorated with cute neo-Victorian trim; and in town, where the young man, Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), works as an insurance salesman, the public buildings are constructed out of okay materials like glass and brick. The designers of The Truman Show – director Peter Weir and his wife, the visual consultant Wendy Stites – are witty enough to realize that the plastic utopias of the future will not, in fact, be made out of plastic. In the town of Seahaven, the light comes up bright and warm every day, but sometimes it comes up in a sudden surge, as if God himself had turned on the juice. In fact, God has. The lord of this realm is named Christof (Ed Harris), and he attempts to redeem the fallen world outside Seahaven by offering for our entertainment a perfect Eden of nothingness. Christof is a television “creator,” solemn in beret and dark, collarless guru garb, and from his control room he wields absolute power over Seahaven, which, in fact, is a huge set built somewhere on the other side of the Hollywood Hills. From the day of his birth, Truman Burbank has been surrounded by actors, his every move captured by hidden cameras placed all over town. He doesn’t know any of this, though he’s restless and secretly unhappy, and he’s beginning to suspect that something in his uneventful life is a bit weird. His banal, sunshiny routine – rising from bed, greeting neighbors, going to work – provides untold reassurance to the people around the world who watch him in bars, in bedrooms, even in throngs before giant screens in Times Square. Some of them never stop watching him.
I give so much of the premise of The Truman Show because the premise is the main thing the picture has going for it. In support of its idea, The Truman Show turns out to be intricately and merrily designed, with many sportive touches placed in the corners and backgrounds of shots. Conceptual originality isn’t nothing – in fact, it’s remarkably rare in a large-scale summer movie, a movie that couldn’t have been easy to sell to the Christofs who run the film business. Some of the jokes planted by Weir and screenwriter Andrew Niccol run on a delayed fuse, hitting us with teasing slowness – for instance, the posters warning of the dangers of air travel, which, we realize, have been created by Christof to scare Truman into staying home and remaining in the show. It’s fun to watch the TV-set reality fall apart now and then as the actuality below and around it unwillingly slips into view – the studio rain shifted a few feet by technicians so it lands on Truman; the spasmodic, stop-and-go movements of the actors jerking themselves into place so they can photograph Truman, as he passes by, with hidden cameras. For a while, the movie has a fizz of strangeness. We watch one reality encasing and controlling another.
What The Truman Show doesn’t have is dramatic or emotional power – or much meaning either. Jim Carrey plays Truman as a little boy in a large body – as a friendly, grinning dorky American. Carrey acts with his elbows, his shoulders, his ass; he does his abrupt tormented-duck gestures and his half-conscious-schoolboy frown, misery ascending from cheekbones to high, furrowed brow. It’s the filmmakers’ point, of course, that Truman has been infantilized, kept in the womb, but Carrey is too much a farceur and clown to suggest what inner life might be awakening in the newly rebellious man. He doesn’t move us (as, say, James Stewart or even Bruce Willis would have), because he can’t show us the nascent self inside the troubled Truman; he can only turn slapstick up or down in volume. He gives a frenetic but emotionally inert performance.
In any case, the movie is being praised not so much for its craft as for its alleged “subversive” implications – the media-age critique, the metaphysics of illusion and inauthenticity. But The Truman Show is too vague in its metaphors to mean much of anything (it’s about control, it’s about surveillance, it’s about paranoia …), and its various satirical thrusts don’t go together – if anything, they cancel one another out.
Consider: Weir and Niccol establish the tyranny of total pleasantness. If the Saturday Evening Post of the fifties had fornicated with The Donna Reed Show, Seahaven might be the result. Yet the members of the viewing audience are so wrapped up in Seahaven’s utterly bland existence on TV that they forget to live their own lives. But what’s the point of the satire? It doesn’t connect with anything. In the real world, the kind of television spectacle the public gets wrapped up in – soap operas, Jerry Springer, ER, or a serial documentary like An American Family – are all full of incident, emotion, and rage (however ersatz). Even Seinfeld has crises, albeit of the spluttering, tempest-in-a-teapot variety. In a recent Times column, Frank Rich mentioned the O.J. trial, the death of Princess Di, and the L.A. freeway suicide as examples of the kind of TV mania that The Truman Show is getting at, but none of these things is more than distantly relevant to the movie. Violence, scandal, and disorder – that’s what mesmerizes the audience and turns it into a collective Peeping Tom. An audience watching a man who does nothing is just a conceit – a Warholian nowhere that is hardly a danger to us, hardly an example of something we fear we might become.
If Truman the TV subject had been a man condemned by Christof to a life of violence, and if he had wanted, on the contrary, to live peacefully but wasn’t allowed to do so by his creator or his audience – that bit of satire would have hit us where we live. (We don’t want the people on Jerry Springer to behave like adults; we want them to behave like apes.) And again: If Carrey’s unconscious Truman had wanted to break out and feel something – by sticking a nail into his palm or killing someone – then the filmmakers’ conception of the character might have packed a wallop. But what’s onscreen has no punch, no teeth; it doesn’t even scratch.
The movie is about as “subversive” as Forrest Gump, another soothing film about an innocent stumbling through his existence. This is a profound movie for people who don’t like to think, or perhaps for people who are in the media and of the media, and can’t imagine any life outside it. Weir’s metaphoric realization of their situation startles them. Larry King thinks it’s a devastating movie, and so does Frank Rich, who has managed, for some years, to write a national column in which he repeatedly deplores the trivialization of politics by show business while himself avoiding such trivialities as the economy, race, and international affairs. That so resourceful a journalist as Rich has become part of the malaise of our media-saturated society is troublesome. The Truman Show, however, will not disturb anyone’s sleep. Most people, I suspect, will enjoy it as a kind of witty sci-fi escape fantasy (will Truman get out?) – a more creative and extended version of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone.