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Gambit Weekly Center of Attention

By Rick Barton

JUNE 22, 1998: 

Center of Attention

FILM: The Truman Show

STARRING: Jim Carrey, Ed Harris

DIRECTOR: Peter Weir

Peter Weir's The Truman Show arrives at local theaters in the midst of almost unparalleled critical endorsement. Entertainment Weekly hails the picture on its cover as "the year's best movie." Newsweek has called The Truman Show "the number one film to see this summer." So I went to a screening ready to be dazzled. But after seeing the picture, for the life of me, I can't figure out the reason for such inflated hullabaloo. The best film of the year? By my count, three dozen better pictures have opened this year already, and we haven't even reached the 1998 half-way mark. The No. 1 film this summer? Except in markets where it didn't open against Andrew Davis' smart and stylish A Perfect Murder, The Truman Show isn't even the No. 1 film to see this week.

Jim Carrey stars in The Truman Show as Truman Burbank, a 30-year-old insurance salesman who has unwittingly starred in a 24-hour-a-day documentary about his life since the moment of his birth. Truman's wife, Meryl (Laura Linney), his mother, Angela (Holland Taylor), his best friend, Marlon (Noah Emmerich), and everyone else he knows are actually just actors playing roles in a long-running television production. Seahaven, the picture-postcard of a town Truman lives in, is actually an elaborate soundstage with 5,000 cameras poised to capture Truman's every action. All of this is overseen by the documentary's creator and director, a self-satisfied manipulator named Christof (Ed Harris). The picture's premise is that Truman's life has become a national obsession, with people watching videotapes of treasured moments from the past and gathering in bars to watch current developments. Given Truman's white-bread existence, I can't imagine why this might be true.

The narrative in The Truman Show is generated by Truman's sudden suspicion that his life is not normal. One of the lights from Seahaven's dome falls from the "sky" and lands at Truman's feet. More seriously, the actor who played Truman's father and supposedly died in a boating accident when Truman was a child sneaks back on the set disguised as a bum. At first, Christof's minions try to hustle him away, but eventually they allow a reunion and, in parody of stock soap opera formula, tell Truman his dad has been suffering from amnesia. Christof has long tried to invest Truman with phobias that would keep him from venturing outside Seahaven; now Christof fundamentally imprisons his star as Truman makes repeated attempts to flee.

My primary beef about all this concerns the film's weakly developed premise. Marlon tells an interviewer that the show isn't really fake, just controlled. And that indeed must be the case. But if it has been so tightly controlled before, why is it breaking down now? Once we ask that question, the whole concept starts to crumble. Just how is it that Truman's "father" manages to sneak onto the set? Long before that, how did Christof control all the child actors who played Truman's schoolmates? In a flashback scene, we're shown studio thugs strong-arming a young woman named Lauren (Natascha McElhone) who, of course, is really an actress named Sylvia. Sylvia has committed the sin of flirting with Truman when Christof has scheduled a romance with Meryl instead. But given Sylvia's rebellion, why does Christof allow Sylvia to remain in the production long enough to warn Truman that his life is artificial? And for that matter, where's the camera when this warning takes place? Moreover, if Christof can get the warning on film, why does it take him so long to have Lauren/Sylvia's "father" arrive to announce that their family is moving to Fiji? Afterwards, Truman pines for the girl he knew as Lauren, but he seems to forget completely what she's told him. Why is that? In this episode and others, viewers seem eager for Truman to learn the truth and escape. Why, then, is there no public outcry at the cruelty of subjecting an innocent man to such an elaborate hoax?

Then there's the whole business of Meryl, an actress we're asked to believe fully well intends to have a child with Truman even though she actually can't stand him. How much do you have to pay someone to take a role like this? And how does an actor in a role like this have a private life to enjoy her salary? How, for instance, do vacations work for her? Indeed, why is Truman even married to Meryl? He doesn't seem to like her, either. So how did Christof manage to arrange their marriage without Truman rebelling against it?

Even though his life is fake, Truman thinks it's real. It's one thing for Christof to control Truman's environment down to the people with whom he lives and associates. But if he can't control Truman at age 30, how has he controlled Truman until age 30?

Weir and screenwriter Andrew Niccol presumably want The Truman Show to be a canny indictment of the pervasive role the television medium plays in our lives. But this picture doesn't offer any fresh insights, nor is it particularly clever. The film can't even make up its mind about the nature of its villain. Christof is deeply misguided, but he's neither as malevolent as he might have been nor quite redeemable. He's manipulative and selfish, but not nearly as ruthless as we first suspect. A movie like this begs the viewer to contemplate its metaphysics. You don't name a character Christof if you don't want people to puzzle over the nature of God and God's relation to man. But there's nothing here other than a paean to human free will. Few of us have endured lives so utterly blessed that we haven't on some occasion challenged God's authority by blaming Him for our misfortune. Thus, we understand Truman's defiant cry of, "Is that the worst you can do?" But I shudder at contemplating Christof as Weir and Niccol's concept of a weak, self-centered and inhumane divinity.

All this carping doesn't mean that The Truman Show is an abomination. Carrey is adequate, if still far too mannered, in the lead. There are some laughs, though not nearly enough to paper over the film's other weaknesses. The whole is diverting though lacking much emotional grip. In sum, the picture is a slightly above-average entertainment. And if you go not expecting it to be the masterpiece I was led to believe it was, you may well enjoy it a lot more than I did.


Dancing in Place

FILM: The Last Days of Disco

STARRING: Chloe Sevigny, Kate Beckinsale

DIRECTOR: Whit Stillman

Whit Stillman couldn't have made movies in the silent era. His pictures (Metropolitan, Barcelona) are non-stop talk. And he doesn't break form in his current effort, The Last Days of Disco. Stillman's characters aren't quite real, their facile tongues blithely revealing more of themselves than would a normal person. Listening to these people yap, though, is an intense pleasure. You're fascinated even by those characters you detest.

Set in the early 1980s, The Last Days of Disco is a deadpan look at a group of acquaintances who went to college together and have now entered the nascent days of their professional lives. Alice (Chloe Sevigny, who does standout work here) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale, also fine) work together at the lowest editorial level of a publishing house. Alice is quiet and thoughtful; Charlotte is a chatterbox with a bland mean streak. The two haven't ever been friends, but they decide to take an apartment together with Holly (Tara Subkoff), a girl everybody derides as "dull." By day, the young women read books and dream of finding a best seller. By night, they hook up with their male chums and go drinking and dancing at a disco. Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin) is in advertising, Josh (Matt Keeslar) is an assistant district attorney, and Des (Chris Eigeman) is in management at the disco. All are well-bred yuppies scraping by on meager salaries, sure that far better days lie ahead. None of them really cares about any of the others.

Part of the humor of this flick derives from its characters' astonishing disloyalty. Jealous of Alice's intelligence, Charlotte does everything she can to undermine Alice's social self-confidence. Jimmy is so embarrassed by a friend's clothes he demands the pal wear an overcoat to hide his suit. Des throws Jimmy out of the disco when Des' boss reveals that he hates people in advertising. And Des beds a series of women, dumping them in turn with lame excuses. Dan (Matthew Ross), who works at the publishing house, spouts idealistic rhetoric but treats Holly as shabbily as everyone else.

Most of all, there's the talk. Tom (Robert Sean Leonard) waxes euphoric about the collectability of Scrooge McDuck comics and opines that environmentalism was spawned in the 1950s when a generation of Baby Boomers was traumatized by the death of Bambi's mother. The entire ensemble debates at length the symbolic implications of Lady and the Tramp. And Charlotte holds forth with the notion that venereal disease isn't all bad because it forces you to get back in touch with former lovers you may have drifted apart from too soon. This is seldom belly-laugh material, but it's the kind of stuff that has you chortling a day later.


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