We all know that reality TV is ubiquitous nowadays. Any remotely unique scenario is potential gold, from building a tiny house to raising nineteen children to looking for The One. However, there’s plenty of fakeness and staginess going on, even in the seemingly simplest of ideas. It’s a pretty safe bet us normal folks don’t plan our day around sitting for interviews.
This phenomenon begs the questions: What if your entire life was a reality show and no one told you? What would you do? Would you just go with it, or would you want to get the heck out of Dodge?
In 1998, when The Truman Show released, reality TV was barely on the radar, but technology was taking us there faster than we knew. The film examines the ramifications of living in blissful ignorance and what happens when the illusion is shattered. It also explores the ethics of taking control of human beings supposedly for their own good. Will Truman choose the riskier and possibly more fulfilling existence, or will he stay with what he’s always known?
Truman Burbank’s (Jim Carrey) life seems picture perfect. He’s got a gorgeous house in a pristine little town on an island called Seahaven. It’s straight out of the fifties except for the technology, which includes 90s-era Ford sedans and trucks. Truman’s wife, Meryl (Laura Linney) is a nurse, and his mom (Holland Taylor) is a frequent visitor at their house. Marlon (Noah Emmerich), Truman’s best friend since childhood, restocks vending machines for a living and always seems to lead with a six-pack of beer whenever he comes over.
Truman is an endlessly cheerful fellow who always tells the neighbors, “In case I don’t see you, good afternoon, good evening, and good night!” before beaming happily. Then he walks to his car, where the garbage man’s Dalmatian gets in his face before Truman leaves for his job as an insurance salesman.
Today appears like any other day, except that it’s not. A light falls from the sky, seemingly out of nowhere, and shatters on the pavement. Truman looks at it curiously, but there’s nothing he can do but drive to work, where the local classical station explains that an airplane flying over Seahaven dropped some parts. Truman shrugs it off and goes about his normal routine, which includes a stop at the newsstand, where he buys a paper and a fashion magazine, the latter ostensibly for Meryl. Twin brothers also corner him to chat and he tries to sell them insurance, which they always politely decline.
Truman isn’t as contented as he appears. He wants to be an explorer, he wants to travel to Fiji, and for some reason he secretly tears out parts of the faces in the fashion magazines he buys. Meryl discourages Truman from traveling because trying for a baby is enough adventure. It doesn’t help that Truman is deathly afraid of water, whether it’s sailing on it or driving over it.
Unbenownst to our hero, the world is watching him, and they’re riveted. Two parking attendants nosh on pizza, telling customers to leave their keys in their cars. Two old ladies huddle on a couch, one of them clutching a pillow with Truman’s face on it. An entire bar, including the bartenders, stare up at a TV that has a day counter showing how long Truman has been on TV. A Japanese family sits around their kitchen table repeating the catchphrases. A guy watches from his bathtub, where he’s got a little TV rigged.
Even closer to Seahaven is The Truman Show‘s nerve center atop the dome that is Truman’s world, where a busy team of producers, musicians, and other techs monitor every part of Seahaven twenty-four hours a day. There are cameras everywhere, even in Truman’s pencil sharpener.
Since the show runs without commercials, revenue is generated by product placement, some seemingly disguised as everyday conversation, such as when Meryl brings home a weird-looking kitchen tool called a Chef’s Pal and tells Truman all about it.
At the helm is Christof (Ed Harris), who sees himself as a godlike father figure who’s only doing what’s best for his beloved child. He wants to give Truman a perfect life that he couldn’t possibly have in the modern world.
Except life is never perfect, even when it’s manufactured. Truman’s discontent only deepens when he notices weird stuff going on. His radio garbles into a serious male voice saying things like, “He’s turning left,” when Truman just happens to be turning left. Then there’s some heavy feedback right before the classical station returns, the DJ explaining that they must have picked up a police scanner. Truman suddenly decides to shake things up and goes into a different building than the one he works at, only to find that the elevator is fake. Opening the door reveals a craft services table. Truman is aghast and has to be dragged from the building by security guards.
Little by little Truman realizes something’s up, and he itches to leave more than ever. Funny thing, his environment suddenly tries to convince him to stay and forget about all the weird goings-on. The twins suddenly want to buy insurance and they’ll come see Truman next week. Truman’s favorite show plays a movie called Show Me the Way To Go Home, which just happens to be all about learning what the world is like from one’s own backyard. Meryl and Truman’s mom hint at Truman’s upcoming birthday.
As the cliche goes, though, once the cat’s out of the bag, he isn’t going back in. Truman has some decisions to make, and the world will watch with bated breath.
One of the great parts of The Truman Show is that it constantly winks at itself and the sheer artificiality of film. Truman sits in his driveway with Meryl because he knows that the same three sights will appear in his rear view mirror over and over and he can predict them down to the minute. When the twins back Truman into a wall, the giant poster for Kaiser Chicken (featuring a goose-stepping chicken, no less) is lit better than he is. Truman’s way out of Sea Haven begins where what he thinks is an endless horizon suddenly ends.
The film gradually reveals little details about Truman’s motivations and backstory, and it’s an utter pleasure to watch unfold. What’s the big deal about Fiji? Why is Truman so afraid of water? Before the weirdness, has he ever suspected that his life is based around actors pretending to be his family and friends? The Truman Show dangles the prospect of more like the proverbial carrot, and like Truman’s film audience, it’s hard to look away.
There are so many pluses to the film. Truman is perfectly cast. I remember it being one of the first times Jim Carrey did a more dramatic role, and people were genuinely surprised at his acting chops. “Earnestness” is the byword for the rest of the cast, including the production crew, because if they hadn’t at least pretended to believe in Truman, the whole proceedings would have collapsed into silliness. As it is, only Jim Carrey is mildly silly, and it’s more of the average guy variety instead of the over-the-top comedy he’s usually known for.
The visuals are fantastic, too. There are a lot of fisheye shots from hidden cameras, like on the fridge when Truman crosses his kitchen, and the techs chuckle when Truman mugs in front of his mirror pretending to be an astronaut. A lot of the filming has a very clean 50s TV sitcom look, with bright crisp color. Symbolism creeps in as well at crucial moments, which I won’t spoil, but trust me, they look really good.
The total package is a story that’s not heavy-handed about its manipulation vs. personal risk assessment message. The film is cerebral, but no so much that it alienates the audience. It allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions, and since Truman is so likeable, one can’t help but root for him, whatever he decides. I think the thing that keeps me coming back to The Truman Show, besides it being highly entertaining, is that it’s immensely gratifying.
Another review is on the way tomorrow. Thanks for reading, all…