This Is Your Life! Carrey Meets Capra in The Truman Show

Peter Weir’s The Truman Show , from a screenplay by Andrew Niccol, asks us to imagine a 30-year-long, 24-hour-a-day television show set in an idyllic small town called Seahaven and featuring a real-life unsuspecting performer named Truman Burbank, incarnated with an almost Capraesque innocence by Jim Carrey. From his first moments on earth as a fictionalized foundling television-tube baby, Truman has lived his entire existence in a globally watched (via a few thousand hidden cameras) goldfish bowl inhabited by actors playing the parts of his father, mother, wife, friends, neighbors and passers-by in the fabrication of the only reality Truman has ever known.

There are so many ways the tenuous conceit of The Truman Show could have gone wrong and run out of satiric steam. But it is a pleasure to report that it is a good, intelligent, insightful movie instead, with many of the romantic and redemptive virtues of last year’s unappreciated Gattaca , which was written and directed by the New Zealand-born Mr. Niccol, also the screenwriter for The Truman Show . Both Gattaca and The Truman Show have the same fix on the future as a time of efficient repression without cartoonish brutality. Ethan Hawke’s hero in Gattaca seeks to escape the trap of a universally deterministic DNA; Mr. Carrey’s hero in The Truman Show must first discover that the world he inhabits is an artificially contrived cosmos enclosed in a gigantic plastic bubble, and then break free into the uncertain world beyond the studio set’s boundaries.

The wonderland wizards of the Hollywood bottom line have expressed their horror at Mr. Carrey’s decision to jeopardize his superstar status by not simply mugging his way through another simple-minded farce with the promise of a big box-office first weekend, the more moronic and demented the better. I hope The Truman Show will prove them wrong with Mr. Carrey’s commercially dangerous mixture of moods and feelings, and his choices of understatement and underreaction at the most harrowing moments.

The movie was actually shot in the town of Seaside, Fla., a so-called “planned community” with rigorously enforced zoning and building codes designed to preserve a neo-Victorian look in the architecture, with only slight variations in colors and outdoor appearances. One would think that the citizens of Seaside might have been suspicious because of the tendency in Hollywood to yokelize everyone but those who live either in Malibu or Manhattan. Were they ever aware that Seaside was being joked up as Seahaven, a hellishly sunny demi-paradise in the Walt Disney Company mold that impels its hero to break out at any cost?

Still, we must resist the temptation to look at The Truman Show primarily as a cautionary fable against the power of television and its attendant surveillance technology to pry into every nook and cranny of our supposedly private lives. That would be too easy a way to slide into the facile decline-and-fall rhetoric that shapes so much of our premillennial discourse. What makes The Truman Show more subtle and more interesting than all that is its paranoid suggestion that we can never be sure of the sincerity and veracity of even those nearest and dearest to us.

Significantly, Mr. Weir and Mr. Niccol are much more successful in this context with Truman’s supposed best friend Marlon, played beautifully by Noah Emmerich, than with Truman’s ostensibly loving wife Meryl, played by Laura Linney much too broadly and non-seductively. Indeed, the gaping hole in the plot involves Truman’s marital relationship, and the unresolved uncertainty about what it actually entails in the television show within the movie.

Christof, the demonized creator of The Truman Show , is rendered by Ed Harris in a masterfully sinister beret that evokes a monomaniacal media deity, or even a deranged archfiend auteur. Christof has been thwarted thus far only by the inability of Truman and Meryl to produce a child that will be seen around the world at the moment of its birth. But Truman and Meryl are never seen engaged in mild foreplay, much less the hard-core stuff from which babies are usually made. And no wonder. Truman’s first and only love was a reality freak in the acting ranks playing a character named Lauren (her real name, she tells Truman, is Sylvia), and interpreted with sharp-eyed tenacity and tough-love idealism by Natascha McElhone. Lauren/Sylvia was removed from the cast by order of the

omnipotent Christof, and with a covering line in the script to the effect that her family had taken her to Fiji, which becomes Truman’s mantra for the far-off places of his dreams.

As the moment of decision approaches, the movie doesn’t lapse into cheap melodrama, but ascends, like Gattaca , to a state of lyrical individualism and spiritual nobility. Mr. Harris will probably be nominated for an Oscar for his absurdist Christof, and Mr. Carrey and Mr. Emmerich deserve one even more, but they may be too good for the madding crowd.

The Accidental Murderers

Erik Skjoldbjaerg’s Insomnia , from a screenplay by Nikolaj Frobenius and Mr. Skjoldbjaerg, manifests itself as that oddity of oddities, a film noir policier shot in northern Norway’s “land of the midnight sun,” where the dark side of human nature is forced out of the shadows into the blazing sunlight of a freakish fact of the solar system. The story is seen through the bleary eyes of criminal investigator Jonas Engström (Stellan Skarsgard), who, with his lighthearted partner Erik Vik (Sverre Anker Ousdal), has been sent from the south to help the local police solve what seems to be the fiendish murder of a young woman. There turn out to be only two suspects, one of whom, novelist Jon Holt (Bjorn Floberg), makes his guilt known to Jonas very early in the investigation. Unfortunately for Jonas, Holt has witnessed the detective’s accidental killing of his partner Vik in the course of a chase through the fog for Holt himself. Surprisingly, Jonas succumbs to Holt’s blackmail and tries to cover up his own malfeasance by framing the murdered woman’s former boyfriend.

We are a long way from Inspector Morse and Commander Adam Dalgliesh on Masterpiece Theater ‘s “Mystery!” series. Jonas is a detective out of Franz Kafka and Patricia Highsmith, with more guilt and shame on his shoulders than the criminals he pursues. To make matters worse, he suffers from an insomnia made more intense by the infernally endless sunlight to which he is subjected. Jonas suffers from nightmares in his sleep and from hallucinations in his half-waking hours. He is not above a little lecherous fondling of sullenly susceptible teenagers, though he is humiliatingly rebuffed at every turn. Just when he is about to be unmasked by local police detective Hilde Hagen (Gisken Armand), matters work themselves out with Holt’s accidental drowning.

Mr. Skarsgard has been all over the place as an international multilingual actor in The Hunt for Red October (1990), The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), Breaking the Waves (1996) and Good Will Hunting (1997). Yet Insomnia probably comes closer than anything else to serving as a pure vehicle for his somber talents. His Jonas is one of the most tortured heroes, or antiheroes, if you prefer, you are ever likely to see on the screen. He keeps remembering an unfinished comic anecdote his slain partner was telling him shortly before the terrible accident that took his life. Mr. Skarsgard drives all his character’s guilt so far beneath his already anguished surface that you are forced to withhold any easy sympathy you might have been tempted to give him. His ironies, like his feelings, are glacial, and are not to be questioned or explained.

Insomnia is ultimately less a mystery of detection than a meditation on guilt, crime and punishment in a senseless world. Mr. Skarsgard’s skill as an actor enables us to perceive his punishment as a form of spiritual solitude.

A French Bedroom Farce For the 90′s

Peter Howitt’s Sliding Doors has been hanging around for the past month as the meteor and monster movies line up at the multiplexes around town, oozing hype as they engage in a seemingly endless demolition derby. By welcome contrast, Sliding Doors is a surprisingly clever demonstration of the way a very tired type of French bedroom farce can be rejuvenated simply by making the doors slide rather than slam, and by disguising the ridiculous predictability of the plot by splitting it into two symmetrical stories out of sync by only the few seconds it takes for Gwyneth Paltrow’s Helen either to get past the sliding doors into her underground train, or to miss the train.

In the first story, Helen allows herself to be picked up by James (John Hannah), a Scotsman who is destined to be the love of her life, even though, at the moment, she is living with the feckless Gerry (John Lynch), who is supposed to be working at home on a novel while she works for an advertising agency. Helen has just been fired from her job, is going home earlier than usual and is thus in a position to catch Gerry in flagrante delicto with an old flame named Lydia (Jeanne Tripplehorn). In the second one, Helen just misses getting past the sliding doors and misses catching Gerry in the sack with Lydia.

How the two Helens manage to catch up with each other is less important than the opportunity it gives Mr. Lynch’s Gerry to engage in very funny Feydeau-esque routines that stamp him as a gutless wonder and a born loser. Even Ms. Paltrow’s cutesy artificiality as an actress works to make Sliding Doors like Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest , an occasion where, in Louis Kronenberger’s words, “Everything counts, and nothing matters.”