Monday 28 March 2016

Movie Review: The Truman Show (1998)

An astute commentary on television culture's evolution, The Truman Show also explores the limits of human tolerance for the ordinary. The film is an engrossing examination of the societal condition, and as fascinating as its central show.

Television producer Christof (Ed Harris) has created a monstrously successful live, perpetual television show, tracking the minute-by-minute life of Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), the only non-actor. Inserted from birth into a custom-built community of Seahaven, which is one humongous dome-enclosed and climate-controlled film set, Truman has no idea that every second of his life is being broadcast live to millions of viewers, using more than 5,000 hidden cameras.

Truman think he works as an insurance agent, and believes he is married to Meryl (Laura Linney, as actress Hannah Gill), that his best friend since school is Marlon (Roland Emmerich, as actor Louis Coltrane), and that his father died in a boating accident. Over the show's remarkable 30 years of continuous broadcast, various outside activists have tried to infiltrate the set to free Truman. He has never forgotten Lauren (Natascha McElhone, as actress Sylvia), an extra hired to play a high school student who tried to help him escape before she was bundled off the set. When the actor who played his father unexpectedly reappears in his life, Truman starts to suspect that something is not quite right and starts to question the world around him.

Directed by Peter Weir and written by Andrew Niccol, The Truman Show expands the reality television concept to an unsettling edge, and in the process contemplates human boundaries of control, comfort and compliance. The film is thoughtful, often profound, but also tackles its serious issue with humour. The act of viewing and enjoying Truman's story is itself part of the societal guilty-pleasure dilemma. The film is also unsettling enough to raise doubts about any life: if Truman is so deluded about his reality, who is to say what is defined as real and what is not?

Everything in Seahaven is designed to be idyllic, and to convince Truman that he has no reason to want to leave. Ironically, Christof's attempts to instill the emotional fear of leaving and segregate Truman from the outside world create the most compelling moments of drama for the viewers of the show. And once Truman starts to suspect that everything is too perfect, it becomes increasingly difficult to convince him to settle for his artificial surroundings.

The film plays on the parallel themes of obsession with other people's lives, and the essence of the human condition. The viewers of the show are transfixed, immobile, living their lives vicariously through the television set and following Truman's ups and downs rather than getting on with creating their own memories. The further Truman pushes to escape his sad life, the more entrenched the viewers are in front of the television. It's a sad indictment of the culture, where society cares more about an artificial world labelled as reality than actual existence.

Also permeating through the film is Christof's relationship with Truman, presented as a surrogate for the mysteries of the bond between God and man. Christof loves Truman like a son, and wants him to be safe and content. But Truman has free will, and eventually learns to use it. As much as Christof will try and send cosmic signals about what may be the appropriate path, it will ultimately be man's actions that will govern his fate.

The Truman Show is one of Jim Carrey's most complete performances. Staying as far as he can from the elastic mugging and physical comedy which made him famous, Carrey as Truman conveys innocence, curiosity and ultimately a willingness to question and confront. In addition to excellent supporting performances from Ed Harris, Laura Linney, Noah Emmerich and Natascha McElhone, the cast also includes Paul Giamatti as Christof's chief control room manager.

What is comfortable is not what is necessarily right. The Truman Show finds the spirit of a simple man yearning for a challenge, part of the never ending quest to self-define happiness.

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