Reality Movie

By Drew Ohringer 

ohringer@grinnell.edu

Before Snooki, before the Kardashians, and before Flavor Flav, there was Truman Burbank, the star of The Truman Show. Unbeknownst to him, Truman has, since birth, lived in an elaborate real-time TV set, where everyone but him is an actor. Despite brief, mockumentary-style interviews with the fictional cast of the show itself and occasional reaction shots from its real-world audience, director Peter Weir cleverly puts us in the same voyeuristic position as Truman’s many fans. As the film opens, we see Truman (Jim Carrey, in his first departure from straight-ahead comedy) talking to himself in his bathroom mirror, as if he’s aware of being watched. But the dramatic irony soon kicks in, and we realize that he is hilariously—and tragically—unaware of his predicament. “Good morning, and in case I don’t see ya, good afternoon, good evening, and good night!” he tells  his eerily cheery neighbors, as though he really does know he’s the star of a sitcom.

The Truman Show might sound like some postmodern exercise, but that’s not at all the case—Weir casually looks past the metafiction to create an engagingly surreal world. Like Truman’s viewers, we are sucked into his daily life. Truman’s invented little island town looks like a parody of a 1950s suburb: the houses have white picket fences, the neighbors are always smiling, and Truman’s wife Meryl (Laura Linney), a nurse, wears a quaint uniform. Like Truman’s life, everything is artificial, and it quickly becomes apparent that Truman, who is, of course, an insurance salesman, leads a life of typically quiet desperation. At work, he tears out pictures of models from magazines and dreams of venturing off to Fiji.

Then, one morning, an old man claiming to be his father approaches Truman, but is hurriedly pushed away by strangers. Puzzled and curious—Truman’s father disappeared years earlier when sailing with his son, in an accident arranged by the producers in order to make Truman afraid of leaving his island—Truman starts seeing the cracks of unreality in his world. The scenes of his dawning paranoia, in which Carrey lets his trademark zaniness bubble to the surface only to suppress it, are both agonizing and delightful.

Truman’s obsessive detective work risks becoming a tiring gimmick, but the reactions of those around him—Meryl’s plastic housewife routine begins breaking down—and his quest’s allegorical heft keep it compelling. We can’t help but want Truman to find out the truth of his existence, but his descent into paranoia and confusion reverberates beyond the detective work. Although The Truman Show does presciently examine the consequences of reality TV, it more powerfully—and entertainingly—satirizes and reveals the TV show that is our everyday life, too. And more then a decade after the release of this lightheartedly chilling classic, when we actually can follow the “real” lives of people far less worthy of our attention than Truman, perhaps that is more necessary than ever.