Updated: Dec 20, 2021
Much was made of Jim Carrey’s transition to more dramatic roles in the late 90s, having bounced into stardom in the tour-de-force triple-whammy hit comedies Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask and Dumb and Dumber in 1994. Although there are occasional glimpses of Carrey’s manic persona in The Truman Show (1998), director Peter Weir provides a more grounded setting, skilfully reining in his lead actor’s more cartoonish antics. As Truman Burbank, Carrey is perfectly cast as a courteous, well-liked and charmingly unassuming insurance salesman, married to Meryl (Laura Linney) in the picture-perfect, though mundane town of Seahaven. Truman is a slightly larger-than-life everyman, though living a very ordinary existence, not seeming to wish to be the centre of attention. Yet unbeknownst to him, he is the star of his own television show, his life broadcast to millions around the world. Seahaven is an elaborately constructed set and, worse still, his wife and friends (including best friend Louis, played by Noah Emmerich) are actors. In quite literal terms, his life is not his own.
‘The Truman Show’ itself is the brainchild of egotistical ‘televisionary’ Christof (Ed Harris, complete with ‘mad genius’ beret). Christof insists that the world he has created is “not fake, just controlled.” He is blinded by ambition and equally blind to the moral implications of his creation. To him, Truman is an experiment, and he directs his subject’s life like a soap opera. One thing Christof cannot control, however, is the unpredictability of his star. Truman has been brought up to believe that the pinnacle of success and excitement is a desk job, his ambition to be an explorer quashed by his teacher’s blunt response: “there's really nothing left to explore."
As we meet him, he is getting itchy feet, tentatively wondering what lies beyond the borders of his small-town existence. Boredom and restlessness creep into his everyday life. The same daily conversations with the same people. Listening to his wife’s endorsement of the most recent household item she has purchased – subliminal TV advertising hidden in plain sight. It is a life lacking in spontaneity. Initially, and perhaps slightly implausibly, Truman is blissfully unsuspecting. This mundanity, though, leaves him susceptible to start spotting things out of the norm. It is not long before Truman begins to sense that things are not quite what they seem. Picking up erroneous frequencies on his car radio, he hears someone describing his every move. He spots pre-planned patterns of traffic and becomes suspicious of choreographed traffic jams preventing him from leaving the town. Technical glitches result in Truman being the recipient of his own (very) localised rain storm, and spotlights lighting the artificial sky crashing to the ground, later passed off as falling debris from a passing aeroplane in order to allay Truman’s suspicions. The facade is slipping and the cracks are showing.
We get glimpses of the outside world through the eyes of the show’s devoted viewers. Among them, a man who amusingly seems to spend his entire life in the bath and the patrons of a bar dedicated to broadcasting the show. Truman is even the subject of his own ‘greatest hits’ tape. There is a poignancy in the fleeting narrative of lost love ‘Lauren’ (Natasha McElhone), a background extra who Truman falls in love with in his teenage years. Though their ‘off-script’ relationship is brief, it is the catalyst for Truman’s restlessness and ultimately responsible for the fate of Christof’s vision.
The Truman Show successfully recreates the claustrophobic setting of a small town where everybody knows everybody else’s business, but intensifies this by placing the lead character within the confines of this voyeuristic reality show. In some ways, the intense scrutiny Truman endures (although unwittingly on his part), could be seen as a microcosm of the life of Carrey, or that of any high-profile star, at the peak of their fame. Twenty years later, ‘reality TV’ is just a fact of life – a cultural inevitability, perhaps – but upon the film’s release in 1998, it was a high concept scenario, prefiguring reality by only a few years. So much emphasis is placed on creating a fully realised world in order to maintain the artificiality of Truman’s life that, intentional or not, the film doesn’t necessarily extend to providing fully rounded characters.
Ed Harris does an unsurprisingly dependable job of portraying a morally dubious creative, though as a last-minute replacement for Dennis Hopper (who left the role citing the old ‘creative differences’ line), the character of Christof seems a little underdeveloped. Even the ‘actors’ themselves, effectively living their own lives in character on screen, have roughly sketched characterisation. How do they feel about living out their own lives on a TV show? Are they losing a bit of their real selves in the process? These questions are largely left unanswered, save for some dramatised interview segments which open the film. Laura Linney’s ‘Meryl’ suggests that ‘The Truman Show’ is a way of life, whilst beaming a Hollywood smile. Perhaps The Truman Show is meant to leave the viewer with more questions than answers, whilst providing a perspective on how one perceives one’s own world. As Christof unapologetically asserts, “we accept the reality of the world with which we are presented.”
The Truman Show is a truly original satire that retrospectively acts as a cautionary tale in a culture where other people’s lives are used as entertainment. It leaves the viewer to decide whether the scenario is deceptive manipulation or harmless entertainment. Its main conceit is that Truman has not chosen to be the man whose every moment is beamed around the world, as if under a magnified snow globe. The ‘reality stars’ on our TVs today are there by choice. That’s the difference.
My own personal experience of Peter Weir’s melancholic meditation on the nature of reality was initially informed by my thirteen-year-old self. I have long scorned The Truman Show (1998) for its refusal to let Jim Carrey off the leash. In my more tender years, I was too naive to appreciate the subtlety of Weir’s intent, and Carrey’s carefully maintained restraint. I carried this prejudice forward and only now, having been given cause to consider the film for the first time in twenty years, can I appreciate the abundant quality of its ideals. Carrey playing against type engenders a surreal vibe, that ties perfectly into the tone of a constructed world being systematically deconstructed.
I agree wholeheartedly with Tom’s observations concerning the supporting cast: they are mostly undercooked, existing as mere cyphers for Truman and his voyage of discovery. This is by no means a fatal flaw, but it does deny us the opportunity to perceive Truman’s world-within-a-world in greater detail. The Truman Show is as sweet as it is oftentimes unsettling, and the prescience of its lessons - as the most recent Jeremy Kyle-sized reality television debacle readily demonstrates - cannot be underestimated. It is an intelligent film, and one that has stood the test of time by being ahead of its time.