Review: The Truman Show (dir. Peter Weir, 1998)

Review: The Truman Show (dir. Peter Weir, 1998) June 23, 1998

SO MUCH hype has been built up around The Truman Show, the latest Jim Carrey vehicle to toy with serious themes, one is tempted to scream that the emperor has no clothes. Entertainment Weekly even deemed the film “the year’s best movie” some seven months before New Year’s Eve. Well, fortunately, the emperor is decently attired after all, but his splendor has been somewhat overrated.

The premise behind this film is certainly interesting, but it is couched in a narrative that is, at once, so contrived and so simple that it’s hard to get excited over it. Truman Burbank (Carrey) is a 29-year-old man who doesn’t realize he has spent his entire life inside a giant TV studio. Everyone around him is an actor pretending to be his friend, his wife, his mother, or whatever. Every second of his existence is broadcast to a worldwide audience which — surprisingly, given the vaguely futuristic set-up — looks just like any North American TV audience circa 1998.

This round-the-clock TV show is overseen by its creator, Christof (Ed Harris). In his wire-rimmed glasses and perfectly fitted beret, Christof conveys a sort of delicate artsiness, as if he embodied the tricky balancing act this film must strike between grand poetic metaphor and klunky realism. For there are holes in this world — a klieg light falls from the artificial sky, a meter-wide rainstorm chases Truman around the
beach, a glitch in Truman’s car radio makes him privy to Christof’s stage directions — and once Truman realizes their significance, he must try to escape.

Carrey, at least, lives up to his end of the hype. His performance isn’t exactly Oscar-calibre, but at times there’s a stillness and a sincerity to it which hints at as-yet-untapped potential. But, ironically, he is held back by the contrivances of the film itself.

Director Peter Weir, who previously helped stars like Harrison Ford (Witness) and Robin Williams (Dead Poets Society) achieve serious-actor status, does not tell a story so much as noodle a theme, and his awkward reliance on old Philip Glass tunes could distract and annoy anyone already familiar with Powaqqatsi and Anima Mundi.

Even the social critiques feel dated somehow. Truman lives in a world so oppressively bright, cheery and lacking in irony — not least when Truman’s “wife” Meryl (Laura Linney) pushes brand-name household products — that it seems to come straight out of a 1950s sitcom. If The Truman Show is trying to subvert the illusion of perfection foisted on us by suburban conformity and the mass media, it doesn’t hold a candle to the more urgent critiques produced in that earlier decade, such as The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

What may set The Truman Show apart is the fact that screenwriter Andrew Niccol, whose last diatribe against man-made perfection was the so-so Gattaca, frames the story in terms that recall Gnostic theology (which, between this and Dark City, continues to be a popular scifi subtext).

Like the demiurge, who trapped divine spirit within the material universe according to Gnostic myth, Christof and his co-conspirators have sealed Truman within an artificial world because, through him, they hope to experience the perfect life, albeit vicariously. If Christof is supposed to be a god-like figure, he has more in common with the jealous, soulless deity against whom the Gnostics rebelled than he does with the life-giving, world-redeeming creator of Christian belief.

Seen in that light, Truman’s story is one of self-actualization, of asserting one’s humanity purely on one’s own and escaping from the created world. It is not quite the story of salvation, whereby the true God steps into the world to redeem it from within (though there are vague hints of that too, notably when Truman’s ‘father,’ long thought dead, inexplicably sneaks back onto the set as a bum).

The irony is that this funny but flawed film, embraced so avidly by the pundits and media outlets that routinely tell us what to think, could be falling prey to the very thing it warns against.

— Versions of this review were first published in ChristianWeek and BC Christian News.

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