In a timid act of fear for my critical faculties, I’ll begin with what I do appreciate about Peter Weir’s generally fine The Truman Show as a display of good faith, and so that the rating at the end of this review makes a touch more sense. Weir’s much-adored pop-post-modernist thing is, for a solid hour minus change, an entirely convincing character study, genially endearing if mildly anonymous, about a man, Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), who wallows away his indifferent life in the hermetically-planned community of Seahaven without much more than passive positivism. Generally endeared to a low-humming belief that something, anything, must exist beyond his agreeably plum but criminally middle-class existence, Truman is a high-concept character at his best when he’s quietly emphasizing his humbler qualities, much like the film about his life, a life which also happens to be a planned television show Truman is unaware of but which the rest of the world is rapturously devoted to.
In a premonition of reality television’s vise-grip on 21st century society, The Truman Show is the story of The Truman Show, an in-world television show orchestrated by mastermind Christof (Ed Harris) who films Truman, unknowingly, with 5000 cameras and casts and scripts his entire life and the town of Seahaven. I must confess, however, I am undeniably more smitten with The Truman Show that is inductively about Truman as the protagonist of The Truman Show than explicitly about the making of The Truman Show, since the latter question feints toward a wider palette that the film’s screenplay is essentially unwilling or unable to cope with. As a character study, The Truman Show is nice, basically, a sturdy, whimsical construction about wanting more than life has given you, and a character-study effectively shorn of the falsely-ennobling high-concept the film introduces later on. For the first hour, when the film has acknowledged that Truman’s life is a televisual construct but isn’t insisting on it with explicit visions of the constructed-ness of that construct, it allows us, again inductively, to explore the manipulation of Truman’s life from his unthinking perspective.
A perspective gifted with a minor-key, lightly lovely Jim Carrey performance that is dialectically torn between Carrey’s usual rubbery energy and the middle-class “maturity” of personal restriction and self-policing, a casting selection which effectively thematizes the film’s foundational tension between emancipatory personal expression and socially-governed destiny and which is likely the best thing about the film twenty years later (and after Carrey’s own demons and tensions have been increasingly exposed to the public). With its suggestions that Carrey is a movie-star caricature or construct with a human being waiting to burst out, the film undeniably scores a heavy coup in its mobilization of the actor’s features for self-critical ends, suggesting its own apprehensions about movie star charisma and the packaging of identity for the masses.
The elliptical implication of these early portions, entirely withholding and not showy in its attitude toward the film’s own meta-textual construction, is wonderful in how much credit it gifts to the audience. That all gets us somewhere, if truth be told. And, to be fair, the back-half also benefits from a few observations – mostly confined to Ed Harris’ performance as the creator of the show – about the father-son or God-human relationship between the two principal figures. Not to mention the film’s intimations of fatherhood in crisis, not merely of children questioning their parents but less well-travelled visions of parents less than inclined to liberate their children. Or perhaps, who have turned their children’s lives into packages for their own appreciation and manipulation. Even though it isn’t an especially thoughtful analysis if, say, it was in a cage-match with Bergman, it is vastly more inquisitive than any star vehicle and summer tentpole circa 1998 (a true annus horribilis for summer tentpoles, along with every other year from 1996 to 2001) has any right to be.
At the same time, by that point, the film has already revealed that its protagonist name (Truman – True Man) is not the least of its pseudo-intelligent dips into darkest, deepest C-grade sci-fi paperbacks. At some point, the film’s minor-key successes become insurance for the film, a way of insulating itself from critique with a diffident brand of endearing comedy, i.e. the old “it’s pleasant so it’s beyond criticism” thing defenders of circumspect films love to cart out as gag reflexes to avoid swallowing legitimate critique. What the film does with the “gimmick” – which it is, undoubtedly, considering the film’s hesitance about (or fear of) seriously exploring the implications of its concept – in the back-half is rather less appealing to me, especially when jerry-rigged by the comedy to be primarily low-commitment, pacifying, and pleasing.
Maybe I’m hopelessly conceited, too conceited to fully appreciate a sly little minor comic-diversion when I see one, but if that description applies to me, it seems impossibly specific to The Truman Show as well. Disliking The Truman Show is – I suspect – a herculean feat, but the film itself seems too curated and capably-mounted to endear, entreat, and entertain rather than fulfill the bedeviling, perplexing, perturbing implications of its premise. The pleasures of director Peter Weir and writer Andrew Niccol’s film are undeniable, and many of them are also undeniably minor. Which is great: not every film needs to encompass the world. Troublingly, though, The Truman Show often feels like it wants to, and it is woefully incapable – or at least hopelessly broad – in its attempts to expand its point of view beyond its bounded emphasis on the particularities and machinations of the small fabricated town of Seahaven.
In lieu of seriously meditating on the implications of its high-concept tale of a man whose life is, unbeknownst to him, a TV show, The Truman Show mostly retreats into mild satire (which seems like too pointed a word even still) sometimes bothering to masquerade as a treatise or a dissertation on existence at the turn of the 21st century. I get the sense that the Weir and Niccol film is, today, extremely proud of itself for “predicting” reality TV, and that its defenders are keen on us knowing this. Such a line of reasoning holds that, for instance, Jacques Tati’s Playtime – an obvious predecessor to the experiments in quasi-sci-fi worlds with mild presentiments of the future genre – is important only because it happens to feature cubicles and not because those cubicles are ideological and stylistic weaponry for that film’s far more thoughtful and important imaginative commentary on the nature of public space in modernity and mental habits of those who fit-in to systems vs. those who disrupt, disfigure, and probe the schisms in a society’s everyday constructions to let loose the psychic energies within them, laying bare the essentially arbitrary construction of those realities.
Put more bluntly, whether or not cubicles actually came into existence may not matter in light of Playtime’s greater achievements, its imaginative observations about the mental architecture of then-reality, not its literal guesses about the technical architecture of the near-future. Even more bluntly, then, Playtime looks inward – toward the nature of our beings, our inner-most selves – while The Truman Show is too lasered into its literal world, the cleverness of its concept, the machinations of the TV show which centers the film, that it loses its imaginative understanding of existence. It is so focused on what “being a person in a reality TV show” is like that it forgets to explore the simplicity of “being”. The story the film obviously thinks we are watching Truman’s dawning of consciousness, his eventual realization that his life is, essentially, a planned reality television show organized by media-mogul-cum-auteur Christof, who runs his TV show “The Truman Show” out of an obviously planned seaside resort-town lifted directly out of the 1950s. But the story it wants us to “get” is that our lives are meddled in, created, and manicured by outside forces and negotiated by ourselves. The film obviously thinks that the former literal story is the partner in crime of the latter, metaphorical one, but to my mind, the former rather dilutes the former, turning a (potentially) fiercely allegorical construction into a rote exercise in literal world-building mechanics.
Which is to say, for a film that can’t really explain how this TV show would function in actual reality, The Truman Show spends an awful lot of time dabbling in the legitimacy of its version of The Truman Show. More importantly, while the kernel of The Truman Show is theoretically radical, the craft is scrubbed-clean, pop-pat blockbuster cinema, far removed from the astonishing crooked stick Weir utilized for The Truman Show’s antecedent, Picnic at Hanging Rock, a work where the spores of ambiguity and uncertainty spread outward into the mind. Comparatively, The Truman Show sets up arbitrary walls for itself. Through the back half of its run-time, it is drawn not to its subterranean questions – what does it mean to perceive, to sense reality? – but its obvious, circumstantial ones, like how does Christof actually organize this world or implement a simulacrum of reality? These concerns seem rather hermetic and stuffy, the intellectual particulars of a film that flirts with but does not truly step into the circle of thought it positively announces itself opening up before our eyes. In this sense, its own concept somewhat short-circuits it continuously.
Playtime’s freedom is defined by its unmooring from the need to represent – the fact that it is dedicated to the fullest flowering of itself, not to whether or not its world is commensurable with literal reality. It doesn’t care if its characters act like literal people or whether its situations are possible; they are mentally plausible and philosophically resonant. Its “reality” is, essentially and pointedly, an unglimpsable and internal one. Rather than totalizing an argument about how possible or plausible its world is, assaulting us with details of its world that legitimize it through explanation, Tati’s film is entirely content to sit back from a distance at an expository level and let its cornucopia of minute personal exchanges and interpersonal navigations expose its exploration of the mindset of modernity. The famous restaurant “set-piece” at the end is a collage of mentally shape-shifting people on the verge of new consciousness, realizing that their static mental assumptions are the primary blockades to the beauty of genuinely unfiltered expression. The scene is the sight of a bourgeois dungeon flowering into a genuine space oddity of the mind, but it plays out in unforced slivers, the sights and sounds of people we see suddenly moving with less grace and more frivolity than a minute ago. It doesn’t explain anything, and if it did, its entire argumentative structure about the nature of new perception – about unshackling from the mediation of sight and sound by our governing norms and social mores – would crumble immediately.
But The Truman Show is a blockbuster, meaning that its back-half tends to channel every observation as a prophetic statement, every image as a polemical treatise on reality. While Playtime stages its particular environments as slowly unraveling playgrounds – modernity destroyed and weaponized for new possibility before our eyes – The Truman Show’s conclusion, excepting its very literal final image which restores a modicum of ambivalence, thinks of itself as an unmoving statue, a totem to its own greatness. Playtime is frisky, unwilling to settle down, a restless and entropic particle collider where each electron is a person whose very consciousness is on the line. The Truman Show is so committed to its central concept, however, that it sacrifices its breathing room to experiment or play after its first hour. Playtime mobilizes fine and coarse grains to expand its worldview via its wonderfully haywire fracas, while The Truman Show’s world is neither as literally true – it doesn’t hold up to numerous logical flaws – or abstractly true – it has precious little to say about the nature of reality.
Ultimately, I wonder what lies beneath the film’s cheery, amiable but faux-serious pop-postmodernism? Certainly nothing as pretentious and stultifying as the following year’s adolescently-deconstructive The Matrix, but the same concerns thrum within. Of course, it’s all a metaphor for cinema, but we all know that, and The Truman Show wants us to know it, and our old friend “cinema is artificial and traps us but also validates our lives and has the potential to peer beyond its theoretical limits” is never far from the mind. But a fable benefits from a certain sketchy vagueness, with particulars eloquently scribbled through unforced background detail. Thus, Picnic at Hanging Rock’s cloistered boarding school radiates as both tangible edifice and psychic prison, and Master and Commander’s doomed ship as a technically-sound location and a vessel for political and psychological exploration, a boisterous democratic enterprise with many voices competing for leadership.
Yet, although as a parable of mankind discovering free will and denouncing blind determination, the film is admirably thoughtful, if The Truman Show is a literal construction, why is it so hermetic that it forgets to explore what any of this actually means for the viewers of the show? Or why anyone would knowingly accept the show as entertainment rather than moral quandary? (Although I suppose two decades of reality TV are testament to my pedantry on that account). Fetishizing its own detail to the point of uncovering only the limits of its literalism, The Truman Show keeps insisting on the validity of its literal construction, and in doing so, it threatens to become a purely hubristic, self-referencing, a shiny pop machinery that proves only its own existence without bothering to question its purpose. I’m not ready to call it a truly, completely good film without taking it around in the sifter one more time, and, I suspect, repeat spins will only clarify how little hell The Truman Show actually raises. Again, call me a pretentious ass, but as the saying goes, you have to be one to know one, and I know one when I see one.