Rapid Response: The Truman Show

“The Truman Show” doesn’t seem to really be about the philosophical ideas of fate vs. choice or the conflicting concepts of reality vs. artificiality. It’s also a weak jab at Hollywood and reality TV obsessions and becomes almost exclusively about itself, an elaborate exploration of its “what if” scenario.

I watched the critically acclaimed cult film for the first time last night, despite how often it’s on TBS, and found it to be somewhat overrated. It was cute in its tongue-in-cheek, sitcom-y sort of way that included product placement and continuity sight gags, but all the questions that it left me with were more problematic than they were intriguing.

I kept thinking about all the movies that considered these similar themes better than “The Truman Show” does, and I’ll get to those a little later on. But the film is about Truman (Jim Carrey), a man who has been selected to be observed on television for his entire life. A giant set is constructed around him where life is happy and everyone there is a performer. He goes through a routine blissfully and has some twists and turns that provide the drama in his life, but everyday he remains confined and naive in his existence.

Obviously, the filmmakers are making a statement about choice, or lack thereof, in life. A godlike creator of the show played by Ed Harris claims to be giving Truman a real life, but the show doesn’t adapt to his choices, it moves him toward certain decisions and keeps him on this rigid routine. By the end, the film would like us to believe that choice is possible by having him show enough vindication to seek the truth, but when he’s stuck in this confined lifestyle and naive to what else is out there, he doesn’t really have much of a choice but a forced necessity to change.

Rather, this scenario and what happens here is only specific to this man and this movie. It only asks, if your entire life was observed, what would that look like? And the suspense of the film concerns not how he will choose to live his life or what broader truth we will discover about life but really just whether or not he will escape.

And I wonder about the execution in this all too. The novelty of the concept is there for a little while, but there’s really no mystique at all since we’re in on the joke from the first shot. We know that Truma has been observed his entire life from the get-go and it’s not as if we grow and discover along with him. And then all the other details of this scenario and the show are introduced dryly by having the creator of the show talk at us on a talk show.

It then keeps talking about the beauty of life in the outside world, and all the people we see in the outside world are also cheering him on to escape, but we never actually get a glimpse of the real world because even the people we do see are completely consumed in Truman’s life, but just remotely. In another movie, the movie would get interesting when he escapes into the real world and is shocked at what he finds. How could he possibly live a normal life complete with choice when he’s Truman, the most recognizable, famous man on Earth? Even the love story with the woman he was meant to be with is a non-starter because the movie ends as he steps out the door. How does he intend to find her? What does he know about the real world?

I had a bunch of logistical questions too. Why in a multi-billion dollar TV show that’s been running for 30 years are there continuity errors left and right that Truman can notice? How is it he can walk in a building and actually stumble across a snack table? How is it that the show can’t find a single actor who also knows how to drive a bus or a boat?

I think there is only one contemporary person in Hollywood who can really pull of a story like this, and Jim Carrey has already starred in one of his films. The person I’m thinking of is Charlie Kaufman, and I kept going back to “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” which isn’t really the same movie at all, but through a mind-trip shows Carrey fighting higher powers that seek to prevent him from making choices and keeping certain memories. That movie also has an emotional center and gorgeous cinematography, whereas “The Truman Show” looks like a fake movie set all around. Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York” is perhaps a closer version of the same film, with a man recreating a person’s life story in an impossible stage setting, and that film touches some really big themes and nerves.

I can also think of “The Matrix,” “Brazil” and quite possibly several more movies that consider both reality and choice vs. fate that are escaping me.

Peter Weir is the director because, although it is Andrew Niccol’s original screenplay, producer Scott Rudin didn’t trust a first time director to take over a big studio picture like this. As for Weir, I’ve only seen three of his films, including the also horribly overrated “Dead Poets Society” and the somewhat underrated “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.”

As for Niccol, he also wrote “The Terminal,” which I quite enjoy, he wrote and directed “Lord of War,” which I may have to revisit, and he will be writing and directing 2012’s “The Host,” which is based on Stephanie Meyer’s non-“Twilight” novel and will star Saoirse Ronan.

If you have other recommendations for films that tinker with the ideas presented in “The Truman Show,” let me know in the comments.

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