Monday, February 11, 2013

The Truman Show


directed by: Peter Weir
starring: Jim Carrey, Laura Linney, Ed Harris, Noah Emmerich, Natascha McElhone, Holland Taylor, Paul Giamatti, Peter Krause, Harry Shearer

Released in 1998.

This was for a while my favorite film, and it easily earned that distinction, and forever set the standard by which my favorite films would be defined.  It stars my favorite actor at the time (who remains a favorite), Jim Carrey, who like everyone else first wowed me as a comedic presence, and yet proved instantly compelling in a dramatic performance, because he is the rare comedian who embodies both sides of that coin, including the tragedy cleverly hidden beneath it.

The Truman Show, in fact, is a tragedy, and maybe that's not such a hard thing to discover.  It's about a man who is living a reality show, and he's the only one who doesn't know it.  He's been its star his whole life, and everything around him, including everyone he knows, has been manufactured in order to keep him happy enough to stay.

Except one day something goes off-script.  At college he meets someone who was only supposed to be a background player.  She instantly fascinates him, and although quickly booted from the production site Truman never forgets her.  He settles into a picture perfect life, but yearns for something more, to explore beyond the scope of his world even though he keeps getting told that everything has already been discovered.  Yet the crucial mistake made against him is that Truman wants to experience the world, not simply inhabit it.  And eventually he finds the courage to do exactly that.

Now, obviously some of this is tailor-made for Carrey's comedic sensibilities.  To a certain extent Truman must be entertaining enough for people to watch him so religiously.  Yet the more his world crumbles around him, the more Truman must be something more, and Carrey is more than up to the task.  He's a revelation in the film, not just in his own career but for any actor's.  That's what set Carrey apart in the first place, that he was capable of inhabiting characters more thoroughly than his peers.  At first it seemed that he was only being shameless, that he was only mugging, and at times in his career that has certainly been the case.  The Truman Show is the mark of distinction.  It's the high-water mark by which all his other performances must be compared (nicely mirroring its effect on my cinematic experiences).

There's more than Truman to The Truman Show, however.  There's a rich cast around him, starting with Laura Linney and Ed Harris.  This was Linney's first big role, and she instantly became a critical darling, someone you'd never really think of as a standout until she stands out, and she holds her own against Carrey (for some reason he tends to attract strong performances from his female co-stars).  Likewise with Harris.  Always one of the most dignified actors in Hollywood, his career reached new heights of respect after his appearance as the director of Truman's life.

One more performance worth singling out is Paul Giamatti's.  It's a minor one, but it's also the one that started getting him noticed, until he finally became a leading man in American Splendor.  Giamatti would reteam with Carrey for Man on the Moon, another highlight for both, in a far bigger role.

The psychology of The Truman Show is tremendous.  It's not just a movie that predicted the reality show craze and its hollowness, but about the strength of the human mind.  Truman seemingly has every reason to be happy, and yet he isn't, and the more those around him try to pacify Truman, the less happy he becomes.  No one understands or cares about his needs.  They're just there to maintain the status quo, and that means keeping Truman safely on the set of his show, a small island enclosed in a massive dome.  Perhaps you think you'd be flattered to have such a life, but you'd probably wish that you were at least in control of it, and it's not even that Truman doesn't have that, but that you're as much aware that he's constantly being manipulated and doesn't even know it that draws you into the movie as that he rebels without even thinking, without even being outraged about this, that all he wants is to break free of what he's just become aware of, and reclaim something that's been stolen, namely the girl (played by Natascha McElhone, whose defining feature is her eyes, fittingly haunting) he was denied.

It's a movie that makes you think, and richly entertains you, and leaves you with a cathartic ending, and yet you keep thinking about The Truman Show well after it's over.  Now, of course, you will probably think that Truman could never have truly escaped his curious hell.  Princess Diana had just been killed in a car accident thanks to hounding paparazzi, and that was only the tip of the continuing media frenzy.  Truman might escape the set, but he could never evade the press.  He wouldn't have the first way of coping with them, especially after his dramatic exit from the show the whole world had watched.  If he sued, the trial too would evoke massive coverage, as the OJ Simpson case proved a few years earlier still.

A massively memorable movie on all accounts.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Just My Luck


directed by: Donald Petrie
starring: Lindsay Lohan, Chris Pine

Released in 2006.

This is a movie that you probably won't know off the bat.  It's Lindsay Lohan at the start of her fall from grace, though at no fault on the part of Just My Luck, and Chris Pine at the start of his ascent.

Lohan was a darling as a child actor, whether in The Parent Trap or Mean Girls.  When she grew up, like all child actors she suddenly realized that she wasn't a kid anymore, and that all the fame she'd had was based on very innocent roles, so she started to become that much less innocent in her real life.  Luck, however, is still very much an innocent kind of movie, not a Disney movie like so many of her previous projects but it might as well have been.  It's also one of her first roles where she was asked to carry the movie on her own merits, rather than depending on a studio or gimmick to do it for her.  Except it's very much a gimmick movie, too, as the title helps explain.

Lohan's character has all the luck in the world.  Pine's has none.  Through a movie magic fluke, they exchange luck, and the results for Lohan are supposed to be charmingly hilarious.  Except they end up being more embarrassing than charming, at least as anyone who expected something a little more adult from here at this point would have wanted.  Like I said, it's not Disney but it's very much Disney, and Lohan hasn't figured out what kind of actor she is outside of the Disney formula that to this point in her career has completely defined her.  This is not to say she's untalented, as people tended to start believing once she started asserting herself (the same thing that happened to Jennifer Lopez once she started a pop music career and dared to continue acting).  It's just, Luck may have been a poor choice.

For Pine, it's much the same kind of performance he had in Princess Diaries 2, the romantic lead who plays second fiddle to his more famous costar.  If people had cared about him at this point in his career, he might have gotten stuck in these roles, and not begun to explore his more edgy side, evidenced in Smokin' Aces and Star Trek (with a transition between the two in Bottle Shock).  So it's almost a good thing, as far as Pine's career goes, that Luck was luckless.

Just My Luck is not a bad film, but it's also not highly recommended, except to see Lohan and Pine in transition.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Absent-Minded Professor


directed by: Robert Stevenson
starring: Fred MacMurray

Released in 1961.

I watched a lot of classic Disney films, both animated and live-action, growing up, movies made well before I was born.  One of the more memorable of the live-action efforts was The Absent-Minded Professor, which is perhaps better known for the odd scientific breakthrough known as Flubber, made more obvious by the title of its sequel, Son of Flubber, and Robin Williams remake, Flubber.

Flubber is flying rubber, something any kid could easily embrace as a concept, but Fred MacMurray, a famous star in his day for movies like Double Indemnity and the TV show My Three Sons, for slightly more sober uses.  (If you're still having a hard time picturing him, MacMurray also served as the visual basis for Captain Marvel, the same superhero who would later inspire Elvis Presley's late career wardrobe.)

"Slightly more sober" in this instance apparently means enabling his vintage Model T to fly and making basketball games far more interesting by sticking Flubber on the bottom of the players' sneakers.  This means that the team bounces all over the place (like Gummi Bears), an incredible display of aerial acrobatics, and easily wins a crucial game.

So, not very sober at all, but far more sophisticated than simply wadding it into a ball and launching it recklessly into the air, which is what a kid would do.

It's harmless Disney fun, memorable and a fine vehicle for MacMurray.  If you can get your kids to acknowledge that the world existed before computer animated films, The Absent-Minded Professor remains reliable family entertainment.