"The Truman Show" is nothing as ordinary as the joker in the deck. It's more like a party crasher who shows up disguised as the guest of honor. Arriving as a perfectly welcome addition to summer blockbuster season -- a Jim Carrey comedy -- the movie eats through convention, specifically the way Hollywood equates imagination with high-concept and ever-escalating special effects. It's an example of what critic Manny Farber meant by the "termite-art tendencies" of certain movies, though it might not seem so, since it stays within the boundaries of its own conception. Peter Weir, directing the film of his life, realizes the brilliant script by Andrew Niccol (the talented New Zealander who wrote and directed "Gattaca") just about perfectly. But the conception is so audacious and inventive that the movie winds up doing something genuinely radical: it bores through the boundaries of our entire media-saturated culture. "The Truman Show" comes as close as any recent American movie to utterly refusing that culture.
No hero could seem less radical than Carrey's Truman Burbank. Leaving his picture-perfect suburban home every morning, he strolls out into his picture-perfect suburban yard, greets the picture-perfect suburban black family across the street, and goes to work at his picture-perfect insurance company. Truman speaks in clichis ("That's the whole kit and kaboodle"), he dresses in clichis (a straw golf hat and striped Bermuda shorts for gardening), his whole life has been a clichi. Truman has grown up, gone to school, married and settled down all in the same small town of Seahaven. He's had no choice. Chosen at birth to be the unknowing star of a TV program -- "The Truman Show" -- that will document his life from beginning to end, Truman is living inside the largest television studio ever built. Every element of his "natural" world -- day and night, the sun and the moon, rain and shine -- is a special effect. All the people around him -- his friends, his coworkers, passersby on the street, even his wife, Meryl (Laura Linney) -- are actors. Hidden cameras record his every move and broadcast them 24 hours a day to a rapt worldwide audience. People are so addicted to the show that they even fall off to sleep with their TV sets tuned to a picture of a slumbering Truman.
"The Truman Show" is the brainchild of Christof (Ed Harris), Truman's "creator." Christof sits high up in the nerve center of his TV-studio megalopolis (it's hidden in the set's moon), inventing new plot lines for the show, directing the camera movements, even, at crucial moments, whispering dialogue to his actors over the tiny ear transmitters that everyone but Truman wears. There's an amazing shot of Christof stroking an enormous television screen broadcasting an image of Truman asleep, as if he were God Himself reviewing his handiwork. (It's a good joke when he commands, "Cue the sun.") When he's interviewed, Christof talks in pompous tones of stern benevolence, and his pronouncements are doozies. "I have given Truman a chance to lead a normal life," he says. "Seahaven is the way the world should be." Always dressed in his uniform of beret, big-buttoned designer shirts and prissy little wire-rimmed glasses, Christof is one of those show-business smoothies who's swallowed every self-justification he can come up with. The joke of the movie is that everyone involved in "The Truman Show," from Christof to the faithful viewers, believes that Truman's world is the way life should be. The drama of the movie, its tension and mounting sense of excited discovery, lies in what happens when Truman begins to suspect that, for 30 years, his life has been a hoax.
Niccol and Weir are playing out a grand paranoid joke here: What if everybody except you knew that life was a charade? Part of the pleasure of the movie is how fully they've worked out that premise. Niccol's invention doesn't end with the cleverness of his idea. He appears to have thought out every variation he could come up with. The movie doesn't spell out the particulars of Truman's situation until almost an hour has gone by. Weir clues us in through a deft series of gags and touches: the blurry, rounded edges of a camera lens at the corners of the screen; odd angles that tell us exactly where the cameras are located (in Truman's car radio, in his desk drawer at work); a studio light that comes loose and plummets to the ground, appearing to Truman like some piece of space debris; Meryl, or Truman's best friend, Marlon (Noah Emmerich), suddenly holding up some product to the view of the camera and launching into a commercial; and, in a lovely throwaway shot, the moon hovering only a few inches above the setting sun, a sight Truman responds to with all his heart because he's never known anything else.
As shot by Peter Biziou, "The Truman Show" is beautiful in the way that only the wholly artificial can be. The look of the movie is both lulling and disorienting. At times, it suggests something of the no-place-like-home creepiness of "Blue Velvet." In order to keep Truman in Seahaven his entire life, Christof has reinforced the idea that the rest of the world is a dangerous place. Newspaper headlines proclaim Seahaven as having been voted the best place in the world to live, and there's a hilarious flashback to young Truman announcing to his elementary school class that he wants to be an explorer, only to have his teacher respond, "I'm sorry, you're too late. There's nothing left to explore." In these moments, "The Truman Show" becomes the anti-"It's a Wonderful Life," a parody of the repressive ideal of small-town America as nirvana that Ronald Reagan reintroduced into American life and that has never really gone away (think of President Clinton's "I still believe in a place called Hope").
But Niccol and Weir have also latched onto a great, much bigger subject: the way the media has eroded any separation between our public and private lives. All sorts of cultural signposts zip through your brain as you watch "The Truman Show": programs where people agree to live their lives in front of cameras; talk shows where guests reveal some embarrassing secret in front of an audience; those terrifying "I'm going to Disneyworld!" ads that convert private moments into advertising space; the people on the Internet who've set up cameras to broadcast their lives to whoever wants to log on and watch. "The Truman Show" goes beyond those examples of voluntary exhibitionism to get at the spongelike nature of media, how it absorbs everything that comes into contact with it, recasting and simplifying experience into commodity. That's how Christof keeps the whole spectacle of "The Truman Show" going, by relying on television's ability to recontextualize anything that threatens to break its reality. When Christof nearly drowns Truman during one of his invented dramas, we see viewers cheering for Truman, oblivious that their presence is what's put him in jeopardy. During Truman's college years, he makes flirty eye contact with a young woman named Lauren (Natascha McElhone, who's got some set of peepers -- huge, dark and bewitching) and manages to steal a few romantic moments with her on a moonlit beach. She tries to tell Truman he's on TV, but her "father" comes and spirits her away, and Christof is able to sell Truman's longing for Lauren as a lost-love story line. ("You've got this on the greatest-hits tape," a bartender tells a waitress as she dawdles in front of a TV set when the Lauren episode is rerun.) Truman's romantic longing can't be contained by his creator's ready-made clichis, and it nicks your heart to see Truman caress the identikit collage he's put together out of bits and pieces of fashion magazine photos in an attempt to reproduce Lauren's face.
Critic Ray Sawhill captured the essence of Carrey's earlier roles when he wrote that Carrey's characters were "always optimistically launching into what they see as the movie potential in every real-life situation." In "The Truman Show," Carrey plays a man who optimistically launches into what he believes is the real-life potential of a TV show. Truman isn't an automaton or a fool. Carrey plays him with gentle, expectant decency, as a man who has no reason to think the world won't return his kindness. Playing a good person without seeming dull or saccharine is one of the hardest things an actor can do. The miracle of Carrey's performance is that he doesn't lose sight of Truman's goodness, even when his rage at being lied to comes to the surface. You don't hesitate to fall in love with Truman, because Carrey never makes the mistake of playing him as dear or asking for our sympathy. Perhaps a comic who's shown the aggressiveness Carrey has in his other roles doesn't have it in him to court sympathy. I adored the inspired insanity of Carrey's turns in "The Mask" and "Dumb and Dumber," but in "The Truman Show" he's astonishing on a much deeper level. Carrey channels his usual freneticism into something approaching ardor here -- sane ardor. When Truman begins to suspect the truth about his life, the bright gleam in his eye tells you he's more thrilled than tormented. He feels vindicated that his lifelong fantasies of something bigger than his safe, normal life are suddenly open, that everything is up for grabs. In "The Truman Show," Carrey gets to be what he's never been before: heroic. Truman's restlessness and fearlessness, his refusal to believe in limits, are what make him a hero. You can't get braver or more daring than a hero who's determined to literally break through every barrier in his way, or an actor who makes the leap Carrey does here and still lands on his feet.
"The Truman Show" simultaneously belongs to a tradition of comedies about triumphant romantic dreamers and to another raging subversive tradition of visionaries and outsiders and weirdos who insist that the accepted notion of the real world is a sham. That's why the movie touches you even as it shakes you up, why the world looks different after you see it. I don't think it's too much to say that Peter Weir, Andrew Niccol and Jim Carrey have made what feels like the key movie of its era. There will, no doubt, be some moviegoers who misinterpret "The Truman Show" as being about the triumph of a simple man, and we'll probably see editorials and think pieces using those reactions to contend that the movie is overpraised and conventional. (David Denby of New York Magazine is already first out of the gate with a "Forrest Gump" comparison.) Trying to smooth down "The Truman Show," trying to make it manageable, only succeeds in expanding its joke about how the media defuses what it can't contain. There are precedents in rock 'n' roll for reaching a mass audience while encouraging its members to question every assumption of their culture (Elvis Presley is the most prominent), but I can't think of a single mainstream movie that does the same thing. "The Truman Show" is devastating because it draws such a deadly accurate bead on the limits the media puts on our emotions and imagination (and it knows movies are as guilty of that as TV), and it's exhilarating because it conveys the excitement of ripping through those limits for the sheer thrill of seeing what might be on the other side.