That eeriness is basic to the movie's game plan. If there is a TV antecedent to The Truman Show, it's not Ozzie and Harriet but Patrick McGoohan's 1968 series The Prisoner and the message-y, Rod Serling-scripted Twilight Zone episodes (1959 to 1965). The Truman Show is a cautionary fable about the televisionization of life, but it draws on our own cozy familiarity with television.

Carrey is the perfect actor to play Truman, because he has always seemed not quite flesh and bone. When he stretched like a slinky in The Mask (1994), he was completely fulfilled as a performer; the Pepsodent smile exploded into toothy terror and he became larger than life. His elasticity gives him a rubberoid quality; he may be the closest thing to a human cartoon we've ever seen in the movies. Carrey fits right into the spic-and-span spookiness of Seahaven because the community mirrors his own empty-shell screen persona. As a comic actor, Carrey plays off his (apparent) bright-and-shining normality. (Steve Martin used to do this too.) His all-American, clean-cut features are a put-on. He's such a straight arrow that he's a squiggly line.

I've always enjoyed Carrey in the movies, but there's something a bit unsettling about the way he turns himself into a curlicue. When Jerry Lewis, to whom he's often (inaccurately) compared, went into his rubber-man nutsiness, you weren't particularly jolted by the transformation because Lewis was pretty much zonked from the get-go. The same is true of wild-man comic Robin Williams, who starts out manic and just gets freakier the more he free-associates. Williams, in manic mode, would have been the exact wrong actor to play Truman because Williams is the comic embodiment of what television can do to a person; he's like a big, buzzing squawk box pouring out the jumble from a thousand TV shows. Carrey's blandness -- before he gets stretchy -- is in some ways more suggestive of what television can do to you than Williams's fireworks displays.

Carrey incarnates the filmmakers' notions of the hollowness of TV. His Truman recognizes he has a soul only when it becomes clear to him that, in effect, he's been robbed of it. He figures out that he was the first child to be legally adopted by a corporation, and that his parents, wife, and best friend (Noah Emmerich) are just actors hired to play their parts (like everybody else in Seahaven). And yet on some level these people really do care about Truman -- more, perhaps, than they might if they were real friends and relatives. That's why the film is a horror comedy of a very peculiar sort. It doesn't set up its pretenders as malevolent beings. They're just doing their jobs.

Carrey must have recognized early in his career that there was something unsettling about his super-clean-cut look. (He's a dead ringer for Darrin in Bewitched.) That's why he's always fiddling with it. When he starred as the creepo in The Cable Guy (1996), he turned off a lot of his usual audience because he wasn't playing nice. He was a cartoon, all right, but a dark one. The movie was a failure, commercially and critically, but it indicated Carrey was at least clued in to what was disturbing about him.

He's the best thing about The Truman Show. He doesn't offer evidence that he's about to deliver the definitive Hamlet of his generation, but what he does in this film is very subtle -- he plays someone with all the heft of a hologram, then proceeds to give the role weight. Even though we're far ahead of Truman every step of the way, and even though we're placed in the snooty position of looking askance at his middle-class banality, we never feel superior to him. That's a tribute to Carrey. With a less inventive actor in the part, we might have felt like we were watching a rube getting his comeuppance. We might have identified with Christof. There's still a significant element of cruelty in the movie's agenda -- we spend a lot of time watching Truman getting whacked by fate -- but Carrey brings us into sympathy with the character. He doesn't make us squirm. Instead we feel for him when he starts squirming.

So do the audiences watching his "show" in their living rooms and workplaces. They cheer him in his escape attempts and start up "Free Truman" rallies. It's not just that they love Truman; it's that his story has taken on the contours of high drama. It's an engineered scenario that has burst its bounds and become "real." His odyssey has everything -- an Everyman hero, chases, suspense, "heart." (In a soppy subplot, Truman is provided with a girlfriend from his past who tries to wake him up to the artificial nature of his life.) And just in case his loyal fans want to relive earlier Truman life experiences, there are also Greatest Hits videos.

The Truman Show delves glancingly into the way a television series, especially a "reality-based" one, insinuates itself into the dailiness of our lives. It becomes a lifestyle for its audience. This is the function that movies used to serve in popular culture, but the intimacy of the TV medium is unbeatable: It brings people and events directly into our home and scales down things to a fine familiarity. In Understanding Media Marshall McLuhan wrote, "The television audience participates in the inner life of the TV actor as fully as in the outer life of the movie star." Of course, most TV actors don't have much of an inner life.

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