Camera ready

In The Truman Show, a hypernormal Jim Carrey dives into the world of TV--and brings us a "message film" that almost works

That eeriness is basic to the movie's game plan. If there is a TV antecedent to The Truman Show, it's not Ozzie and Harriet but the Patrick McGoohan series The Prisoner and the messagey, Rod Serling-scripted Twilight Zone episodes. The Truman Show is a cautionary fable about the televisionization of life, but it draws on our own cozy familiarity with television.

Carrey is the perfect actor to play Truman because he has always seemed not quite flesh-and-bone. When he stretched like a slinky in The Mask, he was completely fulfilled as a performer; the Pepsodent smile exploded into a toothy terror, and he became larger-than-life. His elasticity gives him a rubberoid quality--he may be the closest thing to a human cartoon we've ever had in the movies. Carrey fits right into the spic-and-span spookiness of Seahaven because the community mirrors his own empty-shell screen persona. As a comic actor, Carrey plays off his (apparent) bright and shining normality. (It's what Steve Martin used to do.) His all-American, clean-cut features are a put-on. He's such a straight arrow that he's a squiggly line.

I've always enjoyed Carrey in the movies, but there's something a bit unsettling about the way he turns himself into a curlicue. When Jerry Lewis, to whom he's often (inaccurately) compared, went into his rubber-man nutsiness, you weren't particularly jolted by the transformation because Lewis was pretty much zonked from the get-go. The same is true of a wild-man comic like Robin Williams, who starts out manic and just gets freakier the more he free-associates. Williams, in his manic mode, would have been exactly the wrong actor to play Truman because Williams is the comic embodiment of what television can do to a person; he's like a great, big, buzzing squawk box pouring out the jumble from a thousand TV shows. Carrey's blandness--before he gets stretchy--is in some ways more suggestive of what television can do to you than Williams' fireworks displays.

Carrey incarnates the filmmakers' notions of the hollowness of TV. Truman only recognizes he has a soul when it becomes clear to him that, in effect, he's been robbed of it. He figures out that he was the first child to be legally adopted by a corporation, and that his parents, wife, and best friend (Noah Emmerich) are just actors hired to play their parts (like everybody else in Seahaven). And yet, on some level, these people really do care about Truman--more, perhaps, than they might if they were real friends and relatives. That's why the film is a horror comedy of a very peculiar sort. It doesn't set up its pretenders as malevolent beings. They're just doing their jobs.

Carrey must have recognized early in his career that there was something unsettling about his super clean-cut look. (He's a dead ringer for the original Darrin in Bewitched.) That's why he's always fiddling with it, stretching it. When he played the creepo in The Cable Guy, he turned off much of his usual audience because he wasn't playing nice. He was a cartoon, all right, but a dark one. The movie was a failure, commercially and critically, but it indicated Carrey was at least clued into what was disturbing about him.

He's the best thing about The Truman Show. He doesn't offer up evidence that he's about to deliver the definitive Hamlet of his generation, but what he does in this film is very subtle--he plays someone with all the heft of a hologram, then proceeds to give it weight. Even though we're way ahead of Truman every step of the way, and even though we're placed in the snooty position of looking askance at his middle-class banality, we never feel superior to him. That's a tribute to Carrey. With a less inventive actor in the part, we might have felt like we were watching a rube getting his comeuppance. We might have identified with Christof. There's still a hefty element of cruelty in the movie's agenda--we spend a lot of time watching Truman getting whacked by fate--but Carrey brings us into a sympathy with the character. He doesn't make us squirm. Instead, we feel for him when he starts squirming.

So do the audiences watching his "show" in their living rooms and workplaces. They cheer him in his escape attempts and start up "Free Truman" rallies. It's not just that they love Truman; it's that his story has taken on the contours of high drama. It's an engineered scenario that has burst its bounds and become "real." His odyssey has everything--an Everyman hero, chases, suspense, "heart." (In a soppy subplot, Truman is provided with a girlfriend from his past who tries to wake him up to the artificial nature of his life.) And just in case his loyal fans want to relive earlier Truman life experiences, there are also the "Greatest Hits" videos.

The Truman Show gets glancingly into the way television series, especially "reality-based" ones, insinuate themselves into our daily lives. They become lifestyles for their audience. This is the function that movies used to serve in popular culture, but the intimacy of the TV medium is unbeatable--it brings people and events directly into our home and scales things down to a fine familiarity. In Understanding Media Marshall McLuhan wrote, "The television audience participates in the inner life of the TV actor as fully as in the outer life of the movie star"--although most TV actors don't have much inner life.

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