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.

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