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Everyman's Jim Carrey examines TV's omnipotence in The Truman Show

The Truman Show, starring Jim Carrey, is the zeitgeist movie of the hour. How could it not be? It's all about the omnipotence of television and how our lives seem scripted by some unseen force -- a TV producer, perhaps? Zeitgeist movies, almost by definition, get written about not only by film critics but also by "pundits" and op-ed pontificators. And a movie that supposedly zeros in on the way television has transformed our reality is a double bonus -- it allows the media to carry on about the media.

Paramount Pictures, the film's releasing company, is certainly pushing the zeitgeist approach, with costly full-page reprints in major press outlets of a deep-think Esquire rave calling it the "movie of the decade" -- not to mention the verbiage in its own press kit. It tells us the film "reflects the hopes and anxieties that grip us all as the century lurches to a close." Jim Carrey as a poster boy for the millennium? Get used to it.

Truman Burbank (Carrey) is introduced to us as a hyper-straight insurance adjuster who lives in the peachy-keen town of Seahaven with his Clairol-blond, hyper-sweet wife, Meryl (Laura Linney). Everything about Truman's world is honeyed -- it's like a '50s sitcom crossed with a Norman Rockwell townscape. It's all too good to be true, of course, and sure enough, it turns out to be a fabrication. Unknown to Truman as the film opens is that, from the moment of his birth, he has been the star of a 24-hour-a-day TV show.

Seahaven is, in fact, an immense soundstage, and its inhabitants, excepting Truman, are all actors. Over the 30 years of Truman's existence, the number of cameras covertly trained on him has gone from one to 5,000. Virtually his entire life is documented from every angle. Seen around the world, with an audience in the billions, his TV show is the longest-running "real-life" soap opera on the airwaves. And because Seahaven is an island and Truman has conveniently been made to have a fear of crossing water, he has never left his village. He doesn't know what everybody else knows about him. He's a star without the realization of his own stardom -- which, of course, is the essence of his immense appeal.

The orchestrator of this opera is the television director Christof (Ed Harris), who conceived the show and has become such a God-like manipulator that, for the unwitting Truman at least, he might as well be God. Christof -- he has just that one name, like a cult leader or a Beverly Hills hairdresser -- wears a beret and the intense, purposeful look of a messiah. He's demonic in his industriousness, and yet -- you've got to admit it -- he puts on a terrific show. And he genuinely loves Truman, in the way a puppeteer prizes his prime marionette.

The conflict comes when Truman, about a third of the way into the movie, finally figures out what's really going on. Comprehending the made-up nature of his life, he struggles to escape Seahaven. Christof, ever the director-genius, even manages to turn Truman's attempts to flee into a ratings-grabber. And yet he doesn't want the show to climax; he doesn't want his star to break away even after it's clear Truman has found him out.

What probably makes this film resonate for the zeitgeisters is that Truman's realization of his own stardom is presented as tragic. He's an Everyman who realizes he's a Nowhere Man. Truman is, almost literally, a child of the media. Directed by Peter Weir from a screenplay by Andrew Niccol, The Truman Show is anything but a celebration of media-made culture. If it were, Truman's discovery would be not a tragedy but a triumph. Imagine! He doesn't just have 15 seconds of fame, he's had 30 years of it! How ungrateful can you get?

From a strictly filmic point of view, The Truman Show is remarkable. Weir sets up Seahaven -- actually a 90-acre planned community on the northern Florida coast -- as the kind of storybook suburb so "perfect" it's surrealistic. An Australian with a penchant for delivering the cold creeps to audiences -- The Last Wave is his most renowned excursion into high-toned heebie-jeebies -- Weir understands fear. We've seen a variation on these twinkly suburbs before in, for example, the films of Steven Spielberg, especially E.T., and in Robert Zemeckis's Back to the Future series. But those directors offered up their higgledy-piggledy communities with great affection. To a large degree, Spielberg and Zemeckis were formed by the '50s culture of strait-laced sitcoms; what they chose to present is not so much an accurate rendition of that era as a nostalgia for it. Like Truman, these directors are children of the media but unlike him, they also control its expression. They're Truman on the inside, but on the outside they're Christof.

Weir, however, doesn't have any nostalgia for the '50s sitcom culture because, among other things, he never was a part of that Ozzie and Harriet generation. Neither, for that matter, was Niccol, the young screenwriter, who grew up in New Zealand. (He wrote and directed the highfalutin, futuristic Gattaca, which also was about a man escaping his destiny.) The film centers on a kind of leisure world of true-blue Americana, but there's a foreignness to what we see. Everything is so idealized that it's eerie.

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