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Tucson Weekly Carrey'd Away

"The Truman Show" is a media-savvy tale of identity and isolation.

By Stacey Richter

JUNE 15, 1998:  THERE'S SOMETHING disarming and even upsetting about The Truman Show, the wonderful, media-savvy science-fiction film from director Peter Weir. The Truman Show is set in a present that parallels ours, or a slightly distant future. Like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (a film it resembles), the story occurs in a modern world with a few important alterations. Take, for example, the wild popularity of The Truman Show, a television program that's part soap-opera, part "real life" TV. Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) was an unwanted baby adopted by a television corporation that shapes and broadcasts every moment of his life. Truman lives in a carefully bounded environment, on an idyllic little island called Seahaven, where happy people ride their bikes along manicured streets. All of the people in Truman's life--his wife, his mother, the newspaper vendor--are actors. The only "real" person in the whole town is Truman. Truman doesn't know this, at least not at first.

The Truman Show exploits and subverts so many Hollywood conventions that it seems to be one of those rare movies that manages to be both thought-provoking and entertaining. Truman himself is a likable, personable, Jim Carrey kind of a guy who faces the small troubles of living in Seahaven with energy and aplomb. No wonder he's such a big hit. And as the only real guy in a town full of venal, pretending pod-people, it's no wonder that Truman makes such a sympathetic hero. It's easy to root for him, and to hope good things will happen to him. His Stepford-style wife (played with a bright hollowness by Laura Linney) is funny and haunting both, as she caresses Truman with obvious indifference, then makes coffee with verve.

Still, there's more to this movie than standard, Hollywood-style entertainment.

There's a huge amount of tension thrumming through The Truman Show, and it's this tension that seems destined to make it a favorite of students of film theory. I found aspects of this movie extremely unsettling. I'm accustomed to feeling swept up or tense during moments of suspense, or to having a physical response (heart beating, etc.) to peak moments in movies; but I felt slightly sick to my stomach, a sort of queasy sense of dread, all the way through The Truman Show.

I think this is partly because the film cannily exploits the process of identification and twists it back on the audience. The script, by Andrew Niccol (who wrote and directed Gattaca) bounces us between the quiet land of Seahaven and the chaos of the outside world in a way that reflects endlessly upon itself. We feel sorry for Truman because he's being watched even as we, in the audience, enjoy watching him. The only other "real" people in the whole movie are the nice folks watching Truman at home on TV, devouring his image without his consent. (Even his lost love, who protests a system that exploits him so, can't seem to stop herself from tuning in constantly.) And we can't help but be sympathetic to their voyeurism and tacitly join in, even as we deplore the system that allows it. In other words, Niccol's layered, media-soaked script encourages us to identify with Truman, and to violate him at the same time.

And he is violated in the most intimate way. Though it's hard not to wonder if they're gonna show Truman masturbating, or on the toilet, or picking his nose (these points are glossed over), the implication is that only a few embarrassing moments make it to the small screen. More disturbing though is the way in which Truman's sense of self is compromised. The opening shot shows Truman looking in the mirror, cooing to himself, engaging in what he assumes is a private moment. It's quite disturbing to see that this private way of confronting and assembling oneself is being stolen by the camera.

Movie plots often follow an Oedipal trajectory where the hero, usually a young man, overcomes the sinister but fatherly authority of an older man and wins the girl. The Empire Strikes Back is a classic example, but there are a zillion others, including The Truman Show. (Truman defies his creator-daddy and goes after his true love, you see.) But this film seems to gain some of its weird punch from a Lacanian theory of self. Like hyper-smart parrots, kids are obsessed with their mirror image, and Lacan theorized that the first recognition of oneself over there in the mirror marks the awakening of self-awareness, something necessary to becoming properly socialized, learning language, etc. But The Truman Show portrays that moment, and moments reminiscent of it, as being shared by millions of silent viewers. What kind of sense of self would you get then? A creepy one. The Truman Show almost makes you feel guilty for watching it.

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