The Truman Show

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: Outwardly cheerful insurance salesman Truman Burbank has more reason than most to feel paranoid, as he’s the unwitting star of the most popular reality show on Earth. However, as he approaches his 30th birthday the huge set of Seahaven begins to fray at the edges, which together with clues left by lost love Lauren begins to ring alarm bells in Truman’s mind. As Truman pushes at the soft spots of his artificial world, creator Christof scrabbles to keep his show on the road.

Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) has a pretty good life, all in all. He sells insurance in the quaint town of Seahaven where he lives with wife Meryl (Laura Linney), and regularly chews the fat over a beer with best friend Marlon (Noah Emmerich). But under the surface he’s not happy and pines for the memory of a woman apparently called Lauren (Natascha McElhone), and a series of bizarre events – a light falls from the sky, he gets rained on in isolation, his car radio begins to comment on his every move and the lift of a neighbouring office apparently leads nowhere – get Truman thinking, as he starts to get an inkling that somehow the world revolves around him and that those closest to him are not telling the entire truth.

His world is really shaken up by the appearance of a tramp who exactly resembles his father, supposedly drowned at sea when Truman was a young child; despite a reconciliation with ‘Dad’, his fear of water and his wife’s supposed wish to start a family, Truman is ever more eager to leave Seahaven and see the world, but his attempts to escape are blocked at every turn. What he doesn’t know, of course, is that he’s actually being hemmed in by Christof (Ed Harris), maker of ‘The Truman Show’, desperate to keep his prodigy safe and available 24 hours a day for viewers worldwide including a man taking a perpetual bath, the staff and customers of a Truman-themed bar and an anxious actress called Sylvia. As Day 10,913 dawns, however, something amazing happens: Truman goes missing.

It’s well-loved and critically-feted but I’ve never really liked The Truman Show, even though most of its various components are very good indeed. The acting is of a high standard, Carrey in particular toning down his (then) trademark wackiness and making Truman’s externally sunny disposition a natural mirror of the artificial cheesy smiles he encounters on a daily basis. The concept is also a thrillingly satirical ne plus ultra of television voyeurism, picking up on the dubious ethics and manifest artificiality behind MTV’s The Real World and various webcam ventures and showing great prescience about the forthcoming decade of so-called reality TV; I particularly like the joke about the break in transmission gaining the show’s highest ever ratings. The concept is well realised too, with design and direction that gives a thoroughly convincing portrayal of Seahaven and a well-paced drawing-out of Truman’s suspicions, the script fused with a sly mix of humour and emotions, both the false-seeming ‘real’ ones that Christof looks to emote and Truman’s private troubles.

This is all well and good: it’s the story of The Truman Show that I don’t buy. From the outset, the artifices keeping Truman in the dark are shown to be incredibly fragile, and I have trouble suspending enough disbelief to accept that the producers could react quickly enough to some of his actions (setting up the nuclear accident, or the surgery at Meryl’s workplace that is clearly never actually going to be carried out). Moreover, given the previous intrusions into Truman’s life and Lauren’s specific revelations, it’s pretty much inconceivable that he hasn’t discovered more about the fakeness of his life before he gets to thirty, especially since the actors around him follow such set patterns; I don’t really accept the line about accepting the reality we’re given, since Truman’s clearly not an idiot and his wanderlust is stronger than the barriers of fear that have been built into his personality.

More than any of these problems, though, I simply don’t buy that a modern TV audience would be gripped up to 24 hours a day by the kitsch 50’s setting of Seahaven in which Truman lives his utterly mundane life. We know from Big Brother that watching ‘real’ people emote is only interesting for as long as it’s a novelty and the subjects are goaded into action by being given things to do, and there seems precious little action in Truman’s work-drink-sleep life. The slow burn of Truman’s relationship with Meryl hardly seems interesting enough to sustain a half-hour soap opera, especially when all she does is advertise kitchen consumables.

Yes, the love interest provided by McElhone gives Truman impetus throughout the film, but are we meant to feel moved by the ghastly collage he makes to remember her by? Finally, there’s the ending, which pushes credibility to its farthest limits; one minute Truman’s flailing around in the open, violent sea, the next he crashes into the studio’s wall (handily, near an exit): how exactly were those enormous waves made? And how does the sun move in a painted-on sky? If you delve too deeply into The Truman Show it just doesn’t work, much like Carrey’s other serious gem Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; but whereas Gondry’s film was firmly rooted in fantasy, Peter Weir’s asserts a reality which for Truman, as for the viewer, isn’t quite real enough. Maybe that’s the point, but think on this too: if Meryl is simply playing the wife, presumably she is still carrying out her conjugal duties whilst picking up her paycheques. What is the film saying about her, or indeed Marlon, with his willingness to sacrifice the greater part of his life to what is simply an acting job?

I know I said ‘finally’ but there’s one last last thing – I hate Christof. Having seen the movie a few times I appreciate the nuances in Ed Harris’s performance and have come to terms with the idea of the director believing himself both a great artist and a benevolent creator (have your own debate about the religious connotations of the names, I’m not in the mood), but actually proving to be cruel, abusive, manipulative and self-serving. For a villain, though, he has no comeuppance other than seeing his precious charge walk out on him, and this is dramatically disappointing. And then there’s the hat: what – if I may be so common – is the deal with the hat? For me it undercuts the seriousness of the character and any point he tries to make. Also, since Christof claims he’s protecting Truman because the outside world is ‘all wrong’, it would have been instructive to see some of the supposed ills of the ‘real’ world. Had society become so degraded that Seahaven’s faux-50’s setting was legitimately some kind of paradise, then fair enough; but the few snippets of society that we see show a pretty happy populace.

Fans will play the thought-provoking card and invite me to imagine that my life is all one big conspiracy, but it doesn’t stop the fact that The Truman Show makes me cross. It has to score well because it’s original, well-made, well-acted and aims some well-timed jabs at the media. However, it doesn’t add up to a satisfactory whole and I am still tempted to do what I believe most people would were there a real Truman Show to watch: switch off the TV set and do something less boring instead.


3 thoughts on “The Truman Show

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