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By Devin D. O'Leary

JUNE 8, 1998:  Frankly, I'm a bit surprised at all the buzz Jim Carrey has been getting over his so-called "serious" role in the new film The Truman Show. One of Carrey's very first film roles was in the FOX-TV drama Doing Time On Maple Drive in which he played (very convincingly) the alcoholic brother in a dysfunctional suburban family. Even at his most slapstick, Carrey has a certain indefinable "edge." Lurking somewhere under the surface has always been a talented dramatic actor just waiting to break out. Was I the only person on the planet who felt that the Ace Ventura films were a complete waste of good talent? Only in films like The Mask and Batman Forever has Carrey even touched on the kind of dual role that allows him room to be both dramatic and unhinged. Carrey tried stretching himself a bit in last year's dark comedy The Cable Guy. Fans didn't seem to take to it, and the film flopped. As a result, Carrey followed it up with a spastic return-to-roots in Liar, Liar. Fortunately, Carrey was not discouraged by the failure of The Cable Guy and soon accepted the lead role in director Peter Weir's hot property The Truman Show. Apparently, all Carrey needed was a solid script and a smart director, because the result is one of the bravest and most brilliant films I've seen all year.

The Australian-bred Weir has long been known for a string of stateside hits (Witness, Dead Poets Society), but his earliest films (The Last Wave, Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Mosquito Coast) were touched with a kind of magical realism that grows only in Australia. The Aboriginal people of that island nation have a strong belief in the mythology of "Dreamtime"--the concept that one's dreams are in fact reality, and that the reality we know is merely someone else's dream. The Truman Show, in a roundabout way, is a clever take on this mind- bending conceit.

What if the reality we knew were actually a complete lie? From this paranoid germ of an idea, screenwriter Andrew Niccol (who wove an almost intriguing tale of existential paranoia in Gattaca) spins the tale of one Truman Burbank, a nice ordinary schlub who lives in a nice ordinary town and works as a nice ordinary insurance salesman. What makes Truman so special is the fact that his entire life--from the very moment of his birth--has been broadcast on worldwide television. Truman--unbeknownst to himself--is the star of the most popular TV show in history, a 24-hour accounting of the life and times of one Truman Burbank.

This unusual cinema verité marathon is the brainchild of conceptual artist Christof (Ed Harris), who has overseen every moment of Truman's living soap opera. From his first kiss to his pending divorce, each element of Truman's life has been orchestrated by this god-like director. Harris is commanding in his beret-wearing "artist-as- creator" role, meting out equal parts fatherly concern and angry god vengeance upon poor Truman. All the people in Truman's life (friends, family, strangers on the street) are just actors playing a role. Truman's hometown, in fact, is little more than a Hollywood soundstage. The film's dramatic tension starts when Truman begins to suspect the reality to which he's been oblivious his entire life.

Weir has taken certain elements of 20th-century paranoia and tweaked them to a fever pitch. The result, rife with bleak black humor, is startlingly akin to a Kurt Vonnegut novel come to life. Weir paints with an equally surreal palette, creating such indelible images as Christof's man-in-the-moon control room and such sly jokes as the "product placement" throughout Truman's life.

In the middle of this bizarre story sits Jim Carrey, playing it all as close to the vest as possible. His Truman Burbank is the ultimate straight man--a likable fellow who just isn't in on the massive joke to which we are all privy. Those expecting to see Carrey talk with his butt cheeks are going to be sorely disappointed. Those coming with an open mind will see a whole new side to Carrey that has only been hinted at in the past. If Carrey nets an Oscar nod from this, I wouldn't be at all surprised.

Granted, some folks just aren't going to get the arid wit and surreal mind games on display here. For them, there's always cable reruns of Dumb and Dumber. For the rest of us, The Truman Show has staked out an early claim as Film of the Year.

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