Friday, May 13, 2016

The Truman Show (1998)

Spoiler Warning: Nearly two decades old, I feel that the statute of limitations on spoilers for this movie is pretty much up, and this is not a movie that guards its secrets to begin with. Still, this review will contain spoilers, and so if you'd wish to remain perfectly naive as to this movie's premise or conclusion, you probably shouldn't read any further.

It's always nice when a movie you probably should have watched a long time ago, but just never made the effort, turns up on Netflix. The Truman Show, starring Jim Carrey, relies on a terrific premise - what if we took reality shows to the next level, and constructed an unscripted drama around the life of a star who doesn't realize he's even on TV? It's a great idea, although I think that the movie could have been far more effective as a mind-bending sci-fi, focused on playing with our understanding and expectations of reality. As such, its treatment of the obvious ethical issues involved with such a reality show are fairly superficial, and its criticism of TV audiences is hampered by the film's overall glib tone. I suppose I didn't really appreciate the comedic approach, which distracts from the drama inherent to the premise. I like Jim Carrey well enough as an actor, but I think he does comedy better than drama.

I was actually a bit surprised that, instead of keeping it a "twist" that this unsuspecting man's life is a TV show, they pretty much opened the movie with it. Obviously, that kind of a secret would be hard to keep for long (as anyone who didn't see The Sixth Sense on opening weekend must surely know), and I have a hard time believing anyone sitting down to watch The Truman Show at this late a date wouldn't realize that it's a movie about a staged reality. But that doesn't mean that such an approach wouldn't be worthwhile. In fact, I think it would have made for a stronger movie. Keep the revelation under wraps until the moment that Truman sails into the ocean barrier. Up to that point, the movie would be a psychological study of a man so bored with his normal, everyday life, that he starts questioning his own sanity. Coupled with subtler hints here and there (like the police frequency broadcast, and the stage elevator - but less blatant and more ambiguous), the viewer wouldn't be sure whether the reality he's being presented with is artificial, or if the perspective of the lead is just losing its grip on that reality.

I mean, one of the most powerful scenes, for me, was when Truman started suspecting that something was off, and he was stopping traffic on main street, potentially drunk with the sense of power that comes from believing that the whole world revolves around you. This could have been a fascinating study of solipsism. Until, finally, not just the protagonist's mindspace, but reality itself starts to fall apart around him, and he discovers, in the end, that his fevered conversation with "the creator" in the sky is actually the director of a television show, and that his entire life since he was born has been constructed as a convincing artifice. That would have been a truly brilliant movie. (I wonder if there's a cut of this movie - maybe a fan edit - that removes all of the behind-the-scenes and audience reaction shots. Although I'm not sure how effective it would be, given all the blatant spycam perspectives in use). This is not that movie. Still, it's not a bad way to kill a couple of hours.

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