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TV culture gets a surprisingly entertaining drubbing in "The Truman Show."

By Coury Turczyn

JUNE 15, 1998:  It's probably Chaplin's fault—he was the first, after all. It wasn't just that he was the biggest celebrity on the entire planet, the highest paid performer on the silent screen, the man whose comic antics crossed every boundary imaginable. No—Charlie Chaplin was also recognized as a true artist of the first rank. And since then, every comedian to bust his or her ass on a banana peel has been vying for that same title.

Somehow, it's not enough to make millions of dollars by simply acting like a horse's ass—no, every movie comic wants to be also known as a serious artiste. From Jerry Lewis to Robin Williams (and even poor old Chris Farley), comics feel less than successful until they earn the respect of critics, not to mention the Academy. This can result in great dramatic bits (Williams in Good Will Hunting, for instance), but it typically makes for absolutely horrendous, melodramatic acting (as in Lewis' infamously unreleased sad-clown-in-a-Nazi-concentration-camp epic). Perhaps it's all because behind every comedian's goofball smile lies a troubled soul yearning to unleash some inner turmoil.

Watching Jim Carrey's string of live action cartoons, you wouldn't think he'd be susceptible to such angst. How could a guy so willing to behave like a buffoon for our entertainment ever worry about artistry? His performances in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective or Dumb and Dumber are so unhesitatingly over the top, so thoughtlessly ridiculous, you get the feeling that he's truly enjoying what he's doing. Love his movies or hate them, they are pretension-free nonsense—which is a film tradition many people forget about when they wistfully recall Hollywood's "Golden Age." Carrey is a physical comedian of a sort we haven't seen since that fabled time; of course, he's also extremely vulgar, in keeping with our own times, but he's pretty darn good at it. And now, in his first genuine nonslapstick big-screen endeavor (The Cable Guy doesn't count, loaded as it was with nonstop "Carreyisms"), Carrey succeeds in stretching his abilities into the realm of light drama, if not quite to screen artistry.

The Truman Show, a sort of semi-dark comedy for people who don't like satire, is high-concept done right—it has an arch premise that's carried through in a logical manner, with touches of genuine pathos. Carrey stars as Truman Burbank, an extremely polite 30-year-old fellow who lives in the unnaturally clean and orderly Seahaven, an island community. It is a world that looks as if it were wrenched from a TV version of the '50s—a sanitized, cheerful America that exists only in dreams. His life consists of living with his wife Meryl (Laura Linney), a sort of Donna Reed on overload, and working at his staid insurance office. But not everything is so peachy.

Truman secretly yearns to leave Seahaven—but can't. During a boyhood boating trip, his father drowned due to Truman's insistence on going too far out into a storm. Consequently, he has a phobia of traveling over water which prevents him from leaving the island. Additionally, every newscast and newspaper highlights the fact that Seahaven is a paradise surrounded by a cruel and dangerous world. In fact, all his life people have been telling him that he mustn't ever leave his home. Nevertheless, he is haunted by the fact that a girl he was infatuated with was taken away to Fiji—a girl who tried to tell him that "everyone here is lying to you." Somehow, someday, he must get to Fiji.

These doubts about his perfect life widen after certain events shake his belief in reality as he knows it. And here's where we hit the high-concept gimmick—Truman's world is too perfect because it's actually one giant set for the TV show that is his life. As an unwanted baby 30 years ago, he was adopted by a television corporation that has aired his life nonstop ever since. Every move he makes is relayed by cameras to millions of viewers; all of his friends are actors, all of his conflicts are fabrications. But his reactions are very real, as are his doubts.

Such a clever plot could've been reduced to very obvious "commentary" about our TV-obsessed media culture (just check out boringly earnest satires like Mad City), but screenwriter Andrew Niccol and director Peter Weir manage to avoid climbing any tall soapboxes. They weave in barbed jokes about product placement and media manipulation that serve the story rather than their politics. In fact, The Truman Show is as entertaining a look at paranoia, identity crises, and privacy issues as cinema has ever produced. The scariest part is its recognition of audiences' ravenous need for amusement, despite the costs to individuals or to ourselves—and the audience is us, folks.

Whether or not Carrey will get his Oscar nomination depends mostly on whether any other studio manages to release a halfway-decent movie by December 31. Although his performance is surprisingly natural and sympathetic (especially considering his oeuvre), it doesn't exactly write a new page in drama history. But it does go a long way in winning Carrey the title "screen artist." Let's just hope nobody sends him any scripts by that Shakespeare guy...

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