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Big Brother is us in "The Truman Show."

By Peter Keough

JUNE 8, 1998:  "Maybe I'm being set up for something," says Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) after an especially disconcerting day. "Do you ever feel like that . . . ? Like your whole life has been building up to something?"

It's safe to say everybody has felt like that; without a sense of manifest destiny, however illusory, the seeming meaninglessness of life would become unbearable. Such ideas of reference, or perhaps relevance, are what give our media culture life. When consecrated by the tube, the tabloid, or the movie screen, everyday turmoil, squalor, and triviality apotheosize into myth. With genius, audacity, and compassion, and only rarely missing the mark, Peter Weir's The Truman Show poises a pin over this bubble of significance.

Truman Burbank's life, superficially at any rate, seems ideal. He's got a "desk job" selling insurance, a radiantly smiling Donna Reed-like wife, Meryl (Laura Linney), a childhood pal, Marlon (Noah Emmerich), always ready for a heart-to-heart over a sixpack, and a toy-like, white-picket-fenced home in Seahaven, an idyllic island community whose cake-icing-white, pseudo-Victorian architecture, suffused by a preternatural, hyperrealistic light, is one of this film's more superficial resemblances to Patrick McGoohan's groundbreaking '60s TV series, The Prisoner.

True, Truman has his share of heartache and tragedy. As is shown in flashback (a problematic device, as it turns out, in this film), his father died in a boating accident when Truman was eight, which induced a lifelong fear of the water. And as a college student he was beguiled by the siren-like Lauren (or was it Sylvia?), a flirtation that ended at night on the beach with her screaming "You think this is real? It's all for you! A show!" as a man identifying himself as her father came out of nowhere to drag her off to "Fiji." Truman copes by retreating to his basement, to hold her sweater (with a button reading "How Will It End?" pinned to it) and try to reconstruct her features with bits and pieces of photos of models torn from fashion magazines. The end, however, is signaled not by a comet or an asteroid, but by a falling star. "Sirius," to be exact -- that's the label on the high-intensity light fixture that falls at his feet as he heads out to work one morning.

It's not the first anomaly in his life, or the last. His car radio begins to deliver highly personal messages. A homeless man turns out to be his supposedly deceased father. Inappropriate segues from his wife seem oddly like product-placement plugs. An elevator door opens to reveal what look like crewmen and actors lounging between shots in a television production.

It's a tribute to Peter Weir's subtlety, pacing, and irony that we can so readily shake off the implausibility of a person's life being turned into a TV show that's broadcast for 30 years, 24 hours a day, and requires mind-boggling technology, including an enormous, womb-shaped studio -- "one of two man-made objects visible from space! (the other being the Great Wall of China)," crows the show's announcer. And it's a tribute to Weir's shrewd narrative instincts that we don't get to shake off The Truman Show's nightmarish implications. His deft balancing of point of view, from the bewildered Truman to his rapt viewers to the show's creator, Christof (a splendidly understated Ed Harris, as sinister in his benevolence as he is in his menace), compels our identification with the hapless hero even as it implicates us in the conspiracy that confounds him.

Heightening this ambivalence is the wit and irony of Weir's visuals. With odd angles and distorting lenses he reproduces the point of view of the TV show's hidden cameras; more insidiously he re-creates the show's kitschy emotional exploitiveness. A teary reunion remains dramatically effective despite cuts to the crass behind-the-scenes manipulations. Adding to the moment's uncanniness is the setting -- an unfinished bridge suspended over the void. Weir's sometimes jarringly surreal imagery, reminiscent of Magritte and de Chirico, climaxes in a stunning sequence in which Truman discovers that the sky is indeed the limit.

Ultimately, though, it's Carrey who grounds The Truman Show with his persona and his restraint. At first a parody of wholesomeness ("Good morning!" he chirps to neighbors. "And if I don't see you, good afternoon, good evening and good night!"), he draws on his antic id as the artifice of his world unravels and he strives to comprehend and flee from it. Some fans of Ace Ventura may not be happy with his lack of shtick (there is a close-up of his backside, but it remains silent). If patient, though, they will be moved by a performance that aspires to the grandeur of tragedy. Which is something the film falls short of; it does not propose that where the illusions of The Truman Show shatter, those of the real world are only beginning.

Hairy Truman

Peter Weir, renowned director of such films as Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Year of Living Dangerously, and Dead Poets Society, is leery of good reviews.

"It was the first really good review, and I knew we were sunk," he says of the response to his commercial flop/critical hit Fearless (1993), the story of survivors of a plane crash. "At the end it said, 'By the way, if you have any fear of flying, do not go and see this movie.' Most people are terrified of flying, of course, and didn't go to see the film."

Given hindsight, of course, Weir would have made a movie about a sinking ocean liner. But the fate of Fearless didn't make him fearful; for his next project he searched for something even riskier. "After Fearless my feeling was not to become more conservative but to go further in my own exploration of themes and ideas. I wanted something that would be considered unsafe and difficult."

If people are afraid of flying, what would they make of a film exposing the even greater dangers posed by the media? By 1993 Andrew Niccol's script for The Truman Show, the tale of an average guy whose life, unbeknownst to him, is a TV show watched by a billion people, had been turned down many times. Weir, however, was swayed by the knowledge that Jim Carrey, already huge after his hits Dumb and Dumber and Ace Ventura, was interested.

"My hesitation to accept the movie was really because I couldn't see who could play the part. The individual had to be a star. Why otherwise did people watch this show for 30 years? It's because the guy was a naturally funny, if unwitting, star."

And those tuning in to The Truman Show expecting another funny Carrey film could be the unwitting viewers of something more serious. As with his work with Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, Weir found himself the mentor of a madcap comic who wanted to be a serious actor.

"With both of them I said, 'I don't want to inhibit your comic side.' I was afraid they would become so self-conscious about being serious that it would harm their performance. So I said, 'Whenever we see a chance to let your comic side come in, then let's do it.' I like to feel that there's a chance for new ideas to emerge on the set."

One of the ideas behind The Truman Show, Weir acknowledges, is rather old. The notion of someone held in exile in a community created specifically for him was the premise behind Patrick McGoohan's '60s cult-favorite TV series, The Prisoner. "It's similar but with a big update. Instead of its being a secret, because the public would be outraged if they knew what was going on, as it is in The Prisoner, here the public are complicit. They are watching and enjoying his predicament.

"In The Truman Show we're exposing the blurring of the line between reality and un-reality. Are they all acting in the show? Are they all real people? Does anybody care? Does anyone remember that this is an exploitation of an individual? Only at the very end do they see how horrid the experience is, that this is a real human being who may die, and not an actor. It was rather like the buyers of the tabloids and the followers of Diana's life. They were horrified at the paparazzi who hounded her to her death, but those people were out getting stories for them."

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