Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Appearance vs. Reality

By Hadley Hury

JUNE 15, 1998:  The Truman Show is, indeed, a more interesting entertainment than a number of films released thus far in 1998. It is not, contrary to its marketing hype, a defining moment in cinema history or some profound socio-historical revelation for the millennium. The central conceit of Andrew Niccol’s screenplay – that a man has, since birth, lived as the unwitting star of a 24-hours-a-day world-broadcast television show – is original and fraught with potential for examining the impacts of television in our lives, our art, and our society.

For its central dramatic (and, purportedly, its philosophical) conflict, 30-year-old Truman begins to rebel as he pieces together the nearly incomprehensible reality of a life which has been lived in a huge, domed set resembling a picture-perfect small town and in which all of the picture-perfect citizens, including his wife and family and everyone he’s ever known, are actors. Unsatisfied with this safe but controlled existence, he decides to overcome his fear of the unknown and break out. Although The Truman Show is likely to be a huge commercial success, some viewers may come away without the final, cathartic sense of release the film’s protagonist achieves. For, ultimately, the film plays it safe; it never launches itself from its clever premise. It seems almost hermetically smug in its assurance that it has a couple of brilliant ideas and a few remarkable images.

Peter Weir, a seductively imaginative director, provides some compensatory resonance for Niccol’s script, but cannot rescue it, in the end, from the cerebral anemia that keeps it from being as thought-provoking as one wants it to be. Like the artificial life in Truman’s hometown of Seahaven, the risk-taking of this film is, ironically and annoyingly, stifled; just as Truman has been programmed not to trust himself in the outside world, so we, the audience for The Truman Show, have not been trusted enough by its makers to want to think further. In much of its pre-release marketing ballyhoo and in numerous interviews, the writer and director have touted the fact that they are proud of having managed to wrangle out of Hollywood “the first big-budget ‘art’ film.” What they seem to have wrangled is a product that cheats both halves of its promised hybrid persona. The tone of the film is wildly uneven and the pace, at times, deadly. One can appreciate the goal and the effort – and enjoy much of this film – without being inspired to join lemming-like queues buying Truman dolls or the cocktail party psycho-babble comparing the film with Sartre or Kierkegaard. (A far stronger argument might be made for the integrity of vision and the imaginative realization of the hero’s quest theme in Tim Burton’s superb Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.)

Noah Emmerich and Jim Carrey in The Truman Show.
The usefulness of The Truman Show in discussions of media and culture is that it affords a painless point of departure. However much Jim Carrey may be banking on this film to expand his castability for dramatic roles, everyone going to see The Truman Show can guess they’re unlikely to be brought to their knees in tears. They’re correct: the kinetically clownish Carrey comports himself well enough here, but neither he nor the script has enough edge really to drive the hard issues home, to nettle us with questions about how we respond to, and are defined by, the visual media. The film’s air of cartoonishness, of fantasy, is heightened by our already-established perception of Carrey’s persona, and we’re offered little reason to alter it. He uses just enough of his standard repertoire of funny faces and bits to sabotage his leap to acceptance as a serious actor. When, in a scene or two, he expresses angst or even cries a bit, it merely seems one more Carreyesque “look-at-this!” stunt, no more genuinely felt than the “acted” emotions of the people around him. The fundamental tension of the film – that Truman discovers the truth of his life and wants to step outside the frame of the camera’s control – is not reinforced by the casting of such a shamelessly (by his own admission) camera-hungry star. Additionally, the film was shot in the tidily upscale, “architecturally homogeneous,” community of Seaside on the Florida Gulf. Both actor and ambience keep the film, and us, from getting – depending on your point of view – either too serious or serious enough. (The attempt at eerie big-brotherliness here doesn’t hold a candle to that ’50s paranoia classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.)

Even if it is substantially a what-might-have-been proposition, The Truman Show may be one more popular encouragement to continue our conversation about the radically shifting lines between art and life, medium and message, ordering influence and random reality, reportage and passivity, human consciousness and virtual existence.

The final scene is brilliant – almost teleological – and memorable, far more effective thematically than much of the wan, sophomoric philosophizing for which most of the film settles. It is the occasional moment like this that makes one realize that The Truman Show is afflicted with the very outrage that plagues its hero – it’s trapped by an exhilarating concept that atrophies through underdevelopment; it doesn’t let our minds or our souls breathe. Like the small, circumscribed, calculated, regimen of Seahaven – The Truman Show is just good enough to make you angry that it isn’t a lot better.

A Perfect Murder, a well-made, stylish thriller starring Michael Douglas, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Viggo Mortensen, suggests that the battle is already over and that we are passing irredeemably into the 21st century as soulless, immoral creatures motivated sheerly by greed, lust, and a need to decorate the howling void of our pathetic existence with pretty objects.

Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow in A Perfect Murder.
Andrew Davis directs from a screenplay by Patrick Smith Kelly, who has done a marvelous job of updating the old Frederick Knott play Dial M for Murder, which Hitchcock brought to the screen in 1953 with Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, and Robert Cummings. Kelly’s cleverly machinated script segues significantly, and to heightened effect, from the original, and Davis knows exactly what he’s doing with the perfectly cast actors, the atmospheric Manhattan settings, and a permeating sense of contrast between overripe, luxurious appearances, and icy, inhumane realities.

Paltrow plays the much-younger wife of a gonzo broker whose sense of ownership defines him. They have great art and the most drop-dead gorgeous Central Park apartment in recent film history. She is his primary treasure: Aside from being a svelte blonde who works as a translator at the U.N. when she’s not lunching at L’Etoile, she has a $100 million trust fund and no pre-nup agreement. She is also having an affair with a downtown artist her own age. As her husband’s business schemes begin to tank, his acquisitiveness takes a deadlier turn.

To describe any more of the plot would break the cardinal rule of film reviewing. Suffice to say that Paltrow and Mortensen are well-cast, the twists are engrossing, the cinematography sensual, the art direction handsome.

The richest treat in this gilded cage of forbidden pleasures is Michael Douglas in his strongest, most richly detailed performance in years. As the well-tailored Machiavelli, he makes cold charm irresistible. He exudes shrewdness, power, and an elegantly managed need to control. He’s regally, impeccably, loathsome.

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