After the media blitz of admiration for this film, one might be wary going in to see it. Esquire Magazine, Time, Newsweek, Siskel & Ebert, The LA Times, and The NY Times are all extremely enthusiastic about this film. Esquire proclaimed it to be the film of the decade. Why? Because the set-up is quite clever. The Truman Show, in case there is one person out there who does not already know, is a film about a television show of the same name. But not just any show. The show chronicles the life of Truman Burbank, a real person adopted by the show, playing out in a town filled with actors, all inside a huge soundstage. The rub is that Truman (Jim Carrey) does not know that it is all fake. The film's story revolves around how he finds out, which is deftly laced with a commentary on the subtle subversiveness and power of the media, and the complacent false reality it generates.
Many critics find the film to be profoundly intelligent and original. If Rod Serling had not created The Twilight Zone, had George Orwell not written 1984, had Barry Levinson not directed Wag the Dog, had Michael Crichton not written Airframe, had George Lucas not created THX-1138, had MTV not created The Real World, I might agree. However, The Truman Show, much like the current Godzilla, is more of a Frankenstein's monster of other concepts sewn together. It is hardly original. In fact, a New York playwright has just filed suit against the writers and producers alleging infringement of his off-off Broadway show. However, since very little actually is original (in fact, one could argue that story-telling requires a certain degree of retreading in order to place the story in a common frame of reference), the film can be forgiven.
The Truman Show, accepted as unoriginal, is best quantified as a good execution of Noam Chomsky's wish for a 1984 filmed through a media/capitalist-tinted lens. Truman Burbank is Winston Smith, and Christof (Ed Harris) is O'Brien/Big Brother. Stacy is Julia. The television viewers are the proles. The cameras and microphones everywhere are, well, the cameras and microphones everywhere. However, the town itself is nothing like Orwell's Oceania, but more like a cross between the art of Norman Rockwell and the plastic conformity of the town in Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands.
More positively, Peter Weir's restrained handling of the story and his very willingness to film it are to be commended. To offer such a criticism of our age of telegenic media reality in this format is daring, accurate, and important. The film itself, particularly the front-end, has some clever and evocative moments, and Weir handles the 'empowerment' act (seemingly every paranoid film has a scene where the person discovers the 'truth' and feels invincible for it) nicely. Unfortunately, the third act, climax, and finale are curiously pedestrian. Somehow, the movie stopped being 'profoundly intelligent' at the one hour mark and became a melodramatic Forrest Gump.
Compensating for this unfortunate effect is the remarkable and surprisingly convincing performance of one Jim Carrey. Somehow, hidden inside this modern Jerry Lewis, an actor exists. His performance is the reason to see this film. He captures the somewhat slippery identity of Truman Burbank with effortless grace, and if only for the sheer novelty of seeing this formerly monotonous comedian provide an amazingly rich performance, this film deserves attention. The Truman Show is not, however, the film of the decade. Esquire seems to be overlooking Braveheart, Dances With Wolves, and Pulp Fiction which are all arguably superior. If by 'decade' Esquire means the 1990s, it is excluding future potential contenders such as Stanley Kubrick's upcoming Eyes Wide Shut (his first film since Full Metal Jacket), and George Lucas's upcoming 'Episode One' (working title, his first film since Star Wars).
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