"The Truman Show" is a movie and the name of a television show within the movie, both of which star Jim Carrey. This tidy little metaphysic is superbly maintained throughout Peter Weir's flawlessly executed film.
From its opening moment, "The Truman Show" explores the porous membrane between fiction and reality -- are we watching the TV show or the movie about the TV show? -- and it never veers from its mission to keep the difference ambiguous.
In its themes it recalls such films as "Network" and "Natural Born Killers." But in tone it couldn't be farther from those films' earnestness. Rather, Weir has reached back to the comedies of Charlie Chaplin and Preston Sturges for an easygoing, assured touch with a serious subject. Bright, lively and great fun to watch, "The Truman Show" is that winning oxymoron, a sharp satire with the heart of pure romance.
The first question that begs answering is whether Carrey, whose plastic features have contorted themselves into billions of box office dollars in such comedies as "Dumb and Dumber" and "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective," can actually act. He can.
It helps that he has found a role so well-suited to him. He plays Truman Burbank, who was legally adopted by a television company as an infant and has been the unwitting subject of a 24-hour-a-day serial drama for 30 years. As the happy-go-lucky Burbank, whose life is an alloy of sitcom and soap opera, Carrey's eyes glitter like marbles of pure mania and he lets rip with brief moments of the facial calisthenics that have made him famous.
The high jinks are tempered when Truman begins to sense that something isn't quite right in Seahaven, Fla., Truman's storybook hometown of candy-colored houses and neat city squares. First a klieg light drops out of the sky. Soon thereafter, when he's alone on the beach, the rain begins to fall -- just on him. Then Truman's father, who drowned in a boating accident when Truman was a boy, mysteriously re-appears in Seahaven, only to disappear just as quickly.
As Truman begins to assimilate the clues to his hothouse existence, his performance takes on increasing expressive power, culminating in a gesture that recalls another great clown. Like Chaplin, Carrey modulates effortlessly between comedy, pathos and quiet heroism.
He is well-served by a cast of outstanding supporting players. As the woman who plays Truman's wife on The Truman Show -- which we catch up with on its 10,909th day of broadcast -- Laura Linney conveys the perfect measure of peach-fuzz and actressy grit.
Noah Emmerich, as Truman's six-pack toting best friend, is the model of doughy sincerity -- even when his most heartfelt lines are being given to him through a tiny earpiece.
Perhaps best of all is Ed Harris as Christof, the conceptual Svengali behind The Truman Show. Draped in expensive-looking black, Harris is the bona fide co-star of "The Truman Show," combining ruthlessness and unexpected tenderness as the New Age Machiavelli who orchestrates Truman's life from a distant studio. Just as Truman has become a surrogate for billions of people, he has become a surrogate son for the producer. A moment when Christof strokes the huge video image of a sleeping Truman speaks volumes, wordlessly, of the film's theme of "the media" becoming the only way we can connect.
Aside from the performances and smart writing (by Andrew Niccol, who made "Gattaca" last year) there is the movie itself, which is a dazzling display of cinematic ingenuity. Every detail is sharply observed through the ever-present camera eye (there are 5,000 of them in Seahaven), from Linney's green product-placed shoes to an impossibly blue sky that first evokes Norman Rockwell, then Magritte.
From that opening sequence to a breathtaking climactic shot to the final click of the remote, director Peter Weir plays with the audience's complicity in our own deception, tearing away little pieces of the sham to reveal glimpses of reality -- or is it? It's not terribly deep, but "The Truman Show" is a confection of many tantalizing layers.
'The Truman Show'
Starring Jim Carrey, Ed Harris, Laura Linney
Directed by Peter Weir
Rated PG (thematic elements and mild language)
Released by Paramount Pictures
Sun score: ****
Pub Date: 6/05/98