Anointed as the movie of the year, the last five years, or of the decade, depending on which critical blurb you trust, The Truman Show is a great idea for a movie. The picture chugs right along, too, with a sweetly naïve incarnation of Jim Carrey, the ultimate media superstar, slowly discovering that his life is, in fact, a television show.
Truman Burbank, we learn, lives inside the world’s largest movie studio, under a huge dome constructed in Hollywood. An unwanted child adopted by the OmniCam corporation at birth, Truman has never known any life outside of the stylized, fully populated, completely fabricated world of The Truman Show. Worse, he never suspects that this clockwork environment is a phony. The program is a hit in the real world — millions of viewers thrill to Truman’s rather ordinary workaday exploits on a 24/7 basis.
The concept, obviously, is twofold. One, our society’s fascination with celebrities has developed to the point where we’re willing to watch an anointed personality do just about anything on television. (The casting of a Carrey-level superstar was imperative, since the commentary wouldn’t gel with anything less than a media icon in the lead role.) And two, our society itself has been transformed to such an extent that we’re all on-stage, all the time, with cameras watching, products placed, and spectacle manufactured for our benefit.
Truman taps a contemporary sociological phenomenon — anyone who doubts that somebody’s day-to-day life could be the subject of pop culture entertainment would do well to have a look at the various “cam” sites on the Internet that chronicle the lives of their owners in little still-frame slices of life, updated every minute or so. Granted, sex appeal plays a role in the most popular specimens, but much of the time those cameras just sit there snapping pictures of their subjects programming, picking their noses, or napping.
Meanwhile, there’s a subtext, barely explored, having to do with the candy-colored pastel tones of TV land functioning as an escape hatch from the unpredictable hostilities of our real world. Christof, The Truman Show‘s cooly intellectual orchestrator, woos an unsettled Truman at one point by claiming that he’d be crazy to leave a perfectly designed world for the harsh realities that wait outside his studio. There’s a father/son relationship working here, too, as though Truman is the gawky adolescent finally ready to break free of the suffocating (but reassuring) strictures of home life for an uncertain future.
Truman, of course, can hardly be content to stay inside, and who can blame him? Free will, choosing one’s own destiny, all that. But I started to wonder, halfway through the movie, what would wait for him on the outside. He’d be mobbed by paparazzi snapping his picture, fans seeking his autograph, and agents offering him his own late night talk show. His most loyal viewers might become stalkers. Surely, for Truman, the real media-induced nightmare is outside of the bubble, not inside.
If Truman’s world jibes with the preternaturally sunny disposition of all those bygone TV programs that now haunt prime time all over again, so much the better. It defines our apparent yearning for a world that mirrors the one we see on the most agreeable TV programs, a world devoid of change, struggle, and bitterness. It’s the Brady Bunch, Dick Van Dyke world that we now see dredged up from the vaults, put back in prime time on cable TV, and marketed as nostalgia. Sharp, brilliant stuff — The Truman Show may long be remembered for articulating a certain nostalgia and acknowledging our deeply buried pain, a feeling that we’ve been forever burned by a reality that was never what was promised.
So why don’t I think it’s the movie of the year, the decade, or the millenium? Simply, the narrative falters. The first half of the movie includes scenes that could rank among my favorite movie moments — Truman realizing that he can stop the local traffic just by stepping onto the pavement and raising his arms, or being thwarted at his attempts to leave Seahaven by a suddenly blossoming traffic jam. I was particularly struck by the love-at-first-sight encounter where a lovely walk-on actress in Truman’s life lures him to an unscheduled deserted-beach rendezvous by insisting, “If we don’t go now, it won’t happen.” That’s the moment where the movie draws its most convincing parallel between Truman’s manufactured destiny and the tightly scripted plots of our own lives. “Break free, Truman,” is the message, and it resonates within us.
The second part of the film, particularly the final third, falls comparatively flat. Truman’s world turns out to be not as diabolically clever as we might have expected, and Christof winds up playing God with rain and some wind machines. By the time Truman makes his break for freedom, the movie has run out of ideas and unwinds in connect-the-dots melodrama. It’s curiously uninvolving considering the far-reaching implications of the movie’s concept. (Screenwriter Andrew Niccol’s impressively mounted Gattaca gave me the same feeling of prodigious ideas going to waste.) Contrast it to last year’s similarly themed The Game, for example, which would be winded by The Truman Show‘s satirical calisthenics but rivals it easily in terms of aesthetics and moviemaking technique, with a giddy, cathartic denouement.
Finally, I think The Truman Show is just a little too pleased with its own abrupt resolution to be completely satisfying. After all this, I wondered, what was I to make of a happy ending in a movie that had already made me suspicious of happy endings?