Cinema: Smile! Your Life's On TV

It's The Truman Show, Hollywood's smartest media satire in years--and a breakthrough for Jim Carrey

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What a wonderful world Truman Burbank inhabits--a town of pretty houses and smiling people. On Seahaven Island, the streets are spotless, the traffic is orderly, the weather glorious, from seductive dawns (let's get out of bed!) to sunsets worthy of Turner's brush. "Beautiful day, isn't it?" a neighbor asks one predictably fabulous morning, and Truman chirps back, "Always!" He's headed for his honorable job as an insurance salesman, then home to his blond, bedimpled wife Meryl, perhaps off for a late brewski with his best friend, Marlon. You have it all, Truman: good afternoon, good evening and good night! Except for one thing, folks. The whole kit and kaboodle is fake. Truman (Jim Carrey) is the unknowing star of a 24-hour-a-day TV drama that has been aired live around the world for nearly 30 years, since the day Truman was born. Everyone else in town, including Meryl (Laura Linney) and Marlon (Noah Emmerich), is an actor, improvising from a loose scenario devised by the project's creator, Christof (Ed Harris). The Truman Show, as the program is called, is TV's most elaborate prank: Candid Camera on an epochal scale and at a muted pitch. Christof has created the largest man-made structure in history (the huge domed studio that is Seahaven), with a working town, a roiling sea and hundreds of extras, simply to convince one person that his life is real. In this scheme Truman is the human, the one true man. Everything else

A play within a play, only the player doesn't know he's in it. That's a beguiling idea for a Saturday Night Live skit or one of David Ives' miniature metaphysical farces. But can such a notion sustain a full-length film (even one that clocks in at a svelte 102 minutes)? And will the film satisfy the mass audience's interest in what is, after all, a Jim Carrey Summer Movie?

Yes, yes!, we want to sing out, in one of Carrey's trademark siren wails. As dreamed up by screenwriter Andrew Niccol and realized to sunnily subversive perfection by director Peter Weir, The Truman Show is so verdant with metaphor and emotion that it works on any viewer's level. You will laugh. You will cry. You will be provoked to ask yourself why you feel this way. And for once in a blue moon of movies, you will think. Isn't that one of the best buzzes you can get leaving a multiplex?

In a summer of dinosaurs and meteors--those old rock-'n'-roll, end-of-the world money machines--an eccentric little ($60 million) film about one mild man reaching the end of his world may not seem to have much going for it. And Carrey's core audience of boys who like to talk through their butts could be a hard sell for a film in which the megamanic star is an actor, for Pete's sake. But The Truman Show is the best kind of risk: make a good movie and see who comes. And Carrey will be waiting for them, with a performance of profound charm, innocence, vulnerability and pain. The early word on Truman is so positive that one exhibitor dares to invoke a hit 1994 film about another man out of his time: "This picture has Gump written all over it."

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