Jump down to Pleasantville

Jump down to EDtv

The Reel World
Marshall McLuhan to the Nth Degree, The Truman Show is so immaculately executed that it leaves you breathless.

With Jim Carrey, Ed Harris
Written By Andrew Niccol
Directed By Peter Weir

"LIKE IT OR NOT," writes the preeminent English professor, Robert Scholes, "we are at present the most mediated human beings ever to exist on this earth." And nobody--on this earth or any other that resembles it--is more mediated than Truman Burbank, who is now 30 years old, and who still doesn't know that his life has been a TV show since the day of his birth.

Truman lives inside a dome that contains a fabricated city on a fabricated island surrounded by a tranquil fabricated ocean. His mother and father are actors. So is his wife and best friend, and the happy couple next door, and all the people who say hello to him every morning from behind white picket fences that line his neighborhood's red brick streets. He's as happy as someone from The Brady Bunch or Father Knows Best, because that's all he's been allowed to see on his television, and because the actors who play the people of his synthetic community have spoken saccharine dialogue to him since the day he was born.

Meanwhile, outside the dome, everyone who watches Truman (Jim Carrey) on TV--and that's just about everyone--knows that Truman and his life are the brainchild of Christof (Ed Harris), a visionary Big Brother writer/producer/ director who found an unwanted child, formed a corporation to legally adopt him, and placed him inside the dome called Seahaven Island City, then put 5,000
cameras around the place to broadcast Truman's every word and movement to a home television audience.

Now it's the longest running, highest-rated show on TV, presented 24 hours a day without commercial interruptions, so the actors have to fit their product endorsements smoothly into the flow of everyday life. "We really need to throw out that old mower," says Truman's perky blond artificial wife--zoom in for a closeup--"and get one of those new Elk rotary mowers."

It's Marshall McLuhan to the Nth degree, a post-modern world gone mad, and a movie so immaculately executed that it leaves you breathless at the end. The director is Peter Weir, an Australian who hasn't done such refined and humane work since Gallipoli 17 years ago. The writer is Andrew Niccol, the majestically smart New Zealander who wrote and directed Gattaca, and who seems to have emerged from nowhere to become the cinema's most imaginative young storyteller and social critic.

The Truman Show is crammed with lines and concepts about our media-drenched culture that you could probably spend hours discussing to a pulp. "It's not fake," says Christof of Truman's world, "it's merely controlled"--as if there's a difference (but Christof says it thoroughly without guile). When someone points out that all the people in Seahaven are merely actors reciting their lines, he reminds them that Truman, the beloved star of the show, is real. Of course, that's absurd: Truman has grown up listening to contrived (and bad) dialogue all his life thinking it's honest conversation.

But the beauty of The Truman Show--which has an unusually subdued minimalist score by Philip Glass--is how it sweeps you up into its strange dystopian vision, and its notion that Truman is better off living in stage-managed perfection than in the barbarous world outside the dome. So The Truman Show isn't just about the evil invader we've come to call media. It dares to ask whether it's actually better to live in TV Land.

There's a movement afoot in the "real" America of The Truman Show to set Truman free--that is, to tell him he's on a TV show, and then to give him his privacy and his free will. But most people would rather just watch: They turn their humanity into self-gratifying sentiment because they know every pre-conceived tragedy that Truman faces will have a happy ending sooner or later.

Early in The Truman Show, I began to think that Niccol and Weir couldn't possibly keep this up for a whole movie and make me believe it. Now and then they don't, drawing attention to logical gaps in their enigmatic sci-fi creation. That's where you simply have to trust the artists and let them take you through their future world. Still, it's an uncomfortably familiar world, where the broadcast image and its creative moguls dictate the culture rather than the other way around. First in Gattaca, and now in The Truman Show, Niccol creates societies where voyeurism rules and where people are helpless to stop looking at one another.

At first, Jim Carrey seems wrong for this movie, in the way Robin Williams is often just slightly wrong for many of his dramatic roles. But where an actor less associated with comedy than Carrey might have given The Truman Show more edge, there's something useful, even plaintive, in watching Carrey play a guy who discovers that his good humor exists merely for the edification of those around him. If this isn't Carrey's breakthrough role, then it's surely a big step toward the transition he needs if he wants to make it as a dramatic actor.

But nobody in The Truman Show can touch Ed Harris, who shows sides of his talent we haven't seen before: He's cool and inhibiting at first, then terrifying and harsh, then exquisitely sad and tender when Truman, his beloved creation--who begins to notice the oddities of his existence, and thus attempts to become the first man to touch the horizon--leads us to The Truman Show's exhilarating, stupefying and thoroughly satisfying climax.

Jump up to The Truman Show

Jump down to EDtv

With Tobey Maguire, Jeff Daniels, Joan Allen, William H. Macy
Written and directed by Gary Ross

IN THE YEAR OF The Truman Show, Gary Ross' Pleasantville offers a reassuringly thin conceit about the role of popular culture and personal choice in our lives: It argues that the 1950s were a black-and-white generation because everything was smiley-faced and peachy keen, but the 1990s are in color because we dare to live more emotionally complex lives.

So what if the "real life" of the '90s shown in Pleasantville has no drugs, no alcohol, no teen pregnancy, no Prozac and no Gen X slackers who all want to be in show business? The worse you can say about these kids is that they fight over the TV remote control.

Pleasantville is a mildly entertaining, thoroughly trite, aptly named little confection of a movie--briskly written, finely acted and obligingly romantic about modern life. It's an affable fable that can't get its made-up facts straight and sadly ends up being as simplistic as many other less imaginative Hollywood "message movies."

Although the movie takes place mostly inside a late '50s TV series called "Pleasantville," it opens in the late '90s. Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) is a gum-chewing, cigarette-smoking slut who's hot to trot for a high school boy with hair on his chest. Her dorky brother David (Tobey Maguire) wants to date the prettiest girl in school. He's also obsessed with reruns of "Pleasantville," and not in a campy way: He takes the show's "honey-I'm-home" sensibility seriously, and he's memorized every detail of every episode.

As David and Jennifer fight over their new remote control--given to them by an enigmatic TV repair man (an unusually surly Don Knotts)--they get zapped into the black-and-white world of "Pleasantville." There they have no choice but to take on the roles of Bud and Mary Sue Parker, the two perfect children of the perfect couple George and Betty Parker (William H. Macy, Joan Allen), who comprise the TV show's ridiculously contented post-nuclear family.

It doesn't take long for trampy Jennifer to infect the town of Pleasantville with her Madonna-style lust. As more and more people begin to have sex, things in Pleasantville begin to turn from black-and-white into color, and the innocent lovers' lane becomes a lush, epicurean Garden of Eden complete with trees that bear forbidden fruit (apples, actually).

There really isn't much more to the story, and I must say it's rather silly to suggest that sex is the road to Technicolor enlightenment. The last half hour of the movie tries to redeem its theme by suggesting that any form of complex emotion--love, anger, fear--can color your world. But by then it's too late, and you're left pondering the movie's clumsy fantasy-world contradictions. For example, if the citizens of Pleasantville don't know the word "sex" because it doesn't exist in their world, why do they know the words "red," "green" and "rain," which also don't exist?

Pleasantville plays like a lightweight episode of The Twilight Zone. It's not terribly well-imagined, and it seems to think that high concept is enough to sell a quirky movie. The actors, however, take it seriously enough to keep us involved: Maguire has a winsome smile, Allen is adept at becoming antique women (as she did in Nixon and The Crucible), and Macy, who so often plays middle-class losers (see Fargo), adds a touch of lovely pathos to his stock character. Even Jeff Daniels, as the burger shop owner who longs to paint in all the colors of the rainbow and more, seems committed to this very slight little movie, which I hope will commence the end of the '90s' love/hate relationship with the ostensible innocence of the past.

Jump up to The Truman Show

Jump up to Pleasantville

With Matthew McConaughey, Jenna Elfman, Ellen DeGeneres, Woody Harrelson
Written by Lowell Ganz
Directed by Ron Howard

HANDSOME, BUFF, SENSIBLE, and with a disarming smile that's big enough to fill a 26-inch TV screen, Ed Pekurny is just what the camera ordered. One beer-sloshed evening, he's conscripted from among his barroom buddies and asked to star on a new cable show that will follow him 24 hours a day and broadcast his life to the world without commercial interruptions.

So now the arc of movies about consumer culture's best friend is complete: From the genius of Andrew Niccol's futuristic The Truman Show, to the concept that couldn't shoot straight in Pleasantville, we finish the cycle with the smartly entertaining sit-com/dramedy EDtv, a movie made by Ron Howard, the actor-turned-director who literally grew up each week on television as Opie Taylor and Richie Cunningham.

By the time the precarious premise of EDtv becomes hopelessly far-fetched, you'll be so drawn into its brisk affability that you'll barely even notice. Howard has enough savvy not to abate his story with discourse. Yet he has something to say about our ultra-mediated, late-millennial world, where we witness so much celebrity every day that we've become willing to live our lives in public - and unable to distinguish public from private.

Howard's hero in EDtv, portrayed by Matthew McConaughey, is a 31-year-old video store clerk raised as a boy in Texas but transplanted as a teen-ager to San Francisco. Like all of middling America, he has a pixilated family. His mother (Sally Kirkland) is an aging polyester sexpot who's still got that zing. She's married to Ed's slightly bemused stepfather (Martin Landau), who lives in a wheelchair and makes droll remarks about his urinary challenges. Ed's brother Ray (Woody Harrelson) wants to open a high-class gym and then marry Sherry (Jenna Elfman), a spunky blonde who puts too much stock in those relationship quizzes from women's magazine.

This family of movin'-on-up all-Americans is no match for the scoundrels who get them all to sign the forms that launch Ed's life of instant broadcast notoriety. An egomaniacal network boss (Rob Reiner) claims credit for thinking up "EDtv" once the show becomes a big hit. The producer (Ellen Degeneres) who really invented it rides the wave of her brilliant idea until she begins to feel sorry for the mismatched Ed, who's so dogged and guileless that he thinks he can outrun the cameras.

Ed's not on the air for 30 seconds when he forgets that everyone is watching: He wakes up that first day and promptly reaches his hand into his shorts to inspect his morning chubby. When the camera follows him a few days later to Ray's house, they catch Ray in bed with someone who isn't Sherry. That allows Ed and Sherry to unload their hidden feelings for one another, a plot twist that awakens the show's somnambulistic ratings.

All across America - from a University of Iowa co-ed dorm to the Manhattan apartment of two gay men - everyone gets hooked on Ed, waving to him on the street and following him around town. Before long the pundits have their go: Leno makes nightly jokes, RuPaul calls Sherry a "skanky hog," and a PBS-style panel of experts - George Plimpton calls the show "a joyous celebration of boobery" - deconstructs Ed's life as it unravels.

EDtv is an insidious tale of the modern malaise that causes us all to dream of media fame and lottery fortune - our "15 minutes," if I might flog you with that hackneyed maxim just one more time. It's all elegantly done, funny on many levels, and splendidly subtle at reminding us of what cruel, voyeuristic nincompoops we are for demanding gratification at the expense of real people's lives.

Howard directs his actors amazingly well, even in the scenes of broader comedy. Elizabeth Hurley plays a hungry actress who dates Ed for a while, and whose eyes can't help turning to the camera, always ready for her closeup. Even Ron Howard's kid brother Clint, a TV actor in the '60s, has a role that serves up a quick inside joke: In real life, Clint is balder than an egg, but in EDtv his character has thick black hair - and a bitter dispute with his transplant surgeon, who apparently got the hair from a doll.

For McConaughey, the roguish young actor who's stood on the precipice of stardom for a few years now, EDtv is the role he's needed. He's certainly adept at dramatic movies like Amistad and A Time to Kill. But why would any director want to hire such an ingratiating actor only to have him frown for two hours? In EDtv, McConaughey touches himself, ogles his own butt, does the chicken dance and struts around his bedroom. He's loose as a goose this time, and finally, he flies.