The first time I watched "The Truman Show" I had a tough time getting past the reverential critical reaction hyping the film. Nary a discouraging word was said by those honoured scribes, and until I saw the movie, I believed them. Sadly, no film could live up to such lofty praise, and "The Truman Show" was no exception. I felt disappointed by its imperfection. Until I saw the film again recently, that is, clear of the hype. My reaction to it was much different this time. It's a very good -- thought not great -- film.
The major problem I have with "The Truman Show" is that it gives up its secret too early. A much more suspenseful movie could have been made if the audience, along with the protagonist, were kept in the dark longer. The sense of discovery these two entities could have shared would be staggering, the ultimate revelation of the man behind the curtain. I understand why the movie didn't go this way. I understand why director Peter Weir, a sensible sort, didn't want his movie to be about a gimmick (oh what a gimmick it would have been!). He was aiming for a bigger metaphor, and I think he hit it just perfectly.
The town/studio that the filmmakers have created is a wonder to behold. Self-contained, it's designed to both steer Truman along his daily path, so that the camera can catch the product placements which are the sole source of the show's revenue, and to psychologically torment him, so that he'll never ever think of leaving. It's a town filled with little flourishes that only the discerning viewer will catch. Did you notice that the garbage can his neighbour is always carrying has an eyehole? It's just one touch, unexplained throughout that film's first half that contributed to the flawless tapestry of the town.
The film is structured wonderfully. Except for an expository prologue (which cheekily replaces the film's credits with what appears to be the TV-show-within-the-film's credits), the audience is allowed to slowly follow Truman's discovery that the world he thought was real is not all it appears to be. A studio light falls from the sky; confusing, until a radio report later that day reveals that an airplane inexplicably dropped some equipment. Truman's long lost father, dressed in ratty clothing, attempts to make contact with him; later, a newspaper headline bemoans town's homeless problem. Most effectively, Truman longs to be reunited with the true love of his life in a way that's at first hinted at, then, in a stunning revelatory moment, becomes bold and emotional.
With all this good stuff to behold, this is one of the few times when a film's running time feels too short. "The Truman Show", possibly because it is ostensibly a movie about a popular TV show, sells itself short. It needn't have wrapped itself up too quickly. I could have stood another thirty or forty minutes tacked on to its already hundred minute running time, the better to enjoy the richness of the world that has been created, to more effectively delve into the past that has come to inform the present story, and to allow the fine cast to further explore and flesh-out the characters they've been given.
Jim Carrey got a lot of credit for taking a role that would seem to be miles away from manic buffoon he usually plays. Well, that assessment is only half right. For most of the film's first half, Truman is a boisterous fellow, amiable and friendly to all. He isn't yet suspicious that something is amiss, and thus he gives as much joy as he gets. The joy he gets doesn't come from real people, though. It comes from actors. Truman, a grotesque anthropological experiment, has never encountered sincerity. The insipid greeting he repeats every morning ("Good morning... and if I don't see you later, good afternoon, good evening, and good night") is little more than a catchphrase, delivered with a full fake smile and a mock-warm head tilt. These scenes have Carrey smack dab in his element, playing over the top and phony. But there's a purpose to his phoniness; it contrasts with the realization that Truman has to make in the film's second half, and the change that Carrey has to enact to go along with it. He becomes a quieter man, in moments. And when his mania bursts out, it comes in the form of a cunning schemer, intent on breaking down the walls that he just discovered are fencing him in. Carrey pulls off both of these sides of Truman very well, and although you can sometimes see though the seams and tell he's Oscar-fishing, it never detracts from the performance.
As for the grand metaphor that Weir, in conjunction with screenwriter Andrew Niccol, is looking for, well, it's certainly not an attack on the reality TV craze. That's a not-so-sacred cow that gets tagged in the crossfire, but certainly not the target the film is aiming at. It's really trying to make a point about loneliness. More specifically, the loneliness of the authentic man. In a world ravaged by greed and self-preservation, Truman is the only sincere person, and it's slowly eating him up inside. He thinks he lives in a town that's friendly and caring. He doesn't know that they're all paid to be there, and that he has no real friends or real family to call his own. His final choice, whether to stay in his comfortable yet hollow existence or forage forth into the great unknown, is a moment played with suspense and, ultimately, grace. Should he stay or should he go? That's the moral issue the film lays at the audience's feet. And as it keeps reminding us, the most important question, the one that none of us ever find the answer to in our real lives, is this: How is it all going to end?