Cinophile: THE TRUMAN SHOW

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Today it is hard to believe there was once not such a thing as reality TV. The genre has been around in some form for nearly as long as television, but mostly took the form of documentaries or talent shows. Reality TV as we know it today got its big break in 1999 with Big Brother, followed a year later by Survivor.

But The Truman Show managed to beat them both. Many people saw this science fiction comedy hit, one of the big movies of 1998. But looking back at it now, Jim Carrey’s dark comedy about a man in a TV show seems incredibly prescient.

Carrey plays Truman Burbank, a man who waked up in a near-perfect world every day. And every day millions across the globe tune into the live feed of his life. Truman is actually a character in the world’s most popular TV show – only he doesn’t know it. Raised in a special town, everyone around him is an actor and everything he does is captured by thousands of cameras.

Then reality starts to crack. Small things keep happening that makes Truman suspicious about his reality. At the same time his growing urge to travel – both to see the world and to find a lost love – is gnawing at him to leave. The show’s creator, an enigmatic figure called Christoph, as well as the actors, conspire to keep him there. Yet Truman’s draw to destiny is much stronger.

There are a few things that seem a tad odd today, nearly 20 years after The Truman Show came out. Modern TV audiences might wonder what exactly the draw was to the show or how Truman never figured out before that his life was literally on a stage. But the movie is true sci-fi in that respect: it requires a little suspension of disbelief. Of course, that was a lot easier in 1998, before audiences were Keeping Up With anyone.

Funnily enough, the movie does not make any points about television or our entertainment – other from some jokes at the expensive of product placement. Instead this is a musing about destiny, our wills and what makes us happy. Truman lives in a utopia and he has everything he needs. Yet he is becoming increasingly unhappy, because the only thing he wants is a woman who disappeared on him years before. As he becomes unhappier, reality appears to be coming apart at the seams. Only it really is, as he accidentally runs into half-built sets or radio chatter between the crew.

Derived from a much darker script, The Truman Show walks that line between happy delusion and unsettling doubt. It is a unique work that only works in its time and place. If made today, it would be ruined by endless commentary about our media obsession. And a sequel would have just been weird. Yet its fake-real TV world makes The Truman Show even more relevant today than in 1998 – and that is a rare thing.

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Director Peter Weir was set on having Jim Carrey play the lead, which would help its comedic credentials. Since Carrey was busy with Liar Liar and The Cable Guy, the film’s production waited a year instead of recasting. Carrey took a big cut from his then-standard $20 million pay cheque to play the role – a dramatic break from his slapstick persona.
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Everything in the movie is made to feel like a television ad – the director wanted to make it feel as if everything on the show is for sale. Other inspirations include 1940s America and Norman Rockwell paintings.
Ed Harris got the role of the shows creator, Christoph, almost by accident. He was visiting the set of the movie not long after the late (and famously temperamental ) Dennis Hopper left/got fired over creative differences. The movie also courted several major directors, including Brian de Palma, Steven Spielberg and Terry Gilliam before hiring Peter Weir.
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The film was a huge hit, brining in over four times its $60 million budget, as well as a lot of award nominations and wins. But it’s cultural impact was greater, even inspiring a medical condition called The Truman Show Delusion – when people think they are stuck in a TV show.

Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.

Last Updated: August 31, 2015

James

A total movie glutton, nothing is too bad or too obscure to watch, unless it's something like The Human Centipede. If you enjoyed that, there is something wrong with you. But bless you anyway - even video nasties need love...

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