Peep Show

Are you Big Brother?

The Truman Show
Directed by Peter Weir
Paramount Pictures

A Perfect Murder
Directed by Andrew Davis
Warner Bros.

The Last Days of Disco
Directed by Whit Stillman
Gramercy Pictures

How hard it is these days to review a movie instead of the hype that surrounds it! Would I have been less stinting in my praise for the giddy, entertaining Bulworth if my brain had not been saturated by credulous magazine and newspaper testimonials to the political daring of Warren Beatty? Would I welcome The Truman Show for what it is–a sharp-witted, visually layered, gorgeously designed, meticulously directed piece of formula pablum–if I hadn’t been bludgeoned by pre-emptive raves in Esquire, Time, Entertainment Weekly, and the New York Times that proclaim it some sort of subversive postmodern masterwork?

Let me attempt to pick the media lint out of my head. OK. The Truman Show, directed by Peter Weir from a script by Andrew Niccol, is the story of Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), a rather ordinary insurance salesman in a picturesque town called Seahaven. Unbeknownst to Truman, however, he’s not ordinary but “ordinary”: From birth, he has functioned as the protagonist of an internationally televised, 24-hour-a-day series called The Truman Show. And the folks who surround him–including his wife, Meryl (Laura Linney), best buddy Marlon (Noah Emmerich) and, indeed, all the residents of Seahaven–are actors, frequently fed their lines by a producer-director (an eerily self-absorbed Ed Harris) who goes by the name of Christof and watches over all from a control room concealed behind a storybook moon.

I don’t want to give away too many surprises–the full extent to which this universe has been crafted and Truman’s destiny determined–because our hero’s “existential” crisis, his escalating paranoia and discovery of the wheels and pulleys behind his existence, gives The Truman Show its comic hum and entertainingly Orwellian suspense. But the movie’s conceit is plain from its prologue: Billions of viewers all over the world tune in faithfully to partake of Truman’s ordinariness, to share his triumphs and feel his pain, to follow his mundane comings and goings–and buy the products that the actors who surround him are constantly hawking.

The film is an art object and a droll one. The seacoast town, with its neat rows of pretty white Cape houses, has been conceived in the manner of the photographer Joel Meyerowitz, with sharp geometrical lines and light that’s both direct and softening. When Truman and Marlon converse on the beach, their image pops out from a sky that’s like a subtly colored cyclorama. The artifice is enjoyably creepy, at times reminiscent of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and its 1978 San Francisco-based remake. Weir makes us constantly aware of the lenses he’s using and the placement of the cameras, which swivel to catch Truman as he moves from spot to spot. He teases us, so that we’re not always sure if we’re watching Truman through Christof’s lenses or Weir’s. (Are we Big Brother?) The wit is double-edged: The director makes you marvel at the intricacy of this hermetically sealed universe while priming you to root for its overthrow–to hope for the innocent at the center to put the pieces together and find a way to break out of his (velvet) prison.

The idea of the Warholesque conceptual artist as fascist is fun–and not that outlandish, if you caught the Maysles’$2 1985 documentary of Christo attempting to swathe the islands of Biscayne Bay in pink plastic. The Christof of The Truman Show is a peculiarly loving fascist, a self-styled patriarch who has convinced himself that the tidy ‘50s TV universe he has fabricated is superior to the real one–and that Truman, his “son,” is lucky to have so attentive a god. At times, the movie seems like a refutation of laboratory psychology, of the Skinnerian thesis that positive reinforcement in a controlled environment yields a particular desired behavior. Will Truman exercise free will and escape this bland utopia? Will he–to borrow the imagery of Weir’s Dead Poets Society (1989)–find it in himself to stand atop his desk, recite poetry, and assert his independence in the face of an overweening (and potentially lethal) patriarchy?

As my synopsis suggests, the questions posed by The Truman Show are neither novel nor radical. They are, rather, populist and quaintly countercultural–daring, perhaps, in an era in which conformity was enforced and father knew best but not after decades in which filmmakers and visual artists have scrawled obscene graffiti on every ‘50s TV icon imaginable. It’s hard to imagine a less threatening, more commercially accommodating counterculture hero than Truman, who has no dark side and no rough edges, who is never even observed to scratch his private parts or pick his nose. He will doubtless appeal to the vast segment of the audience that loves to identify with Forrest Gump or the child trapped in a man’s body in Big. This is a movie straight out of the American tradition of sentimentalizing children. Go read Lord of the Flies for your subversive take on innocence.

At first, I wondered if a performer with fewer showbiz affectations than Carrey might have made for a more compelling protagonist. But the point seems to be that the Truman we first meet has been molded by his environment into a fake person–that he has taken on the TV-ish coloration of his “co-stars,” and that he becomes “real” only as he realizes the truth. Carrey won me over. He’s terrific–but then, he’s often terrific. His mask work in The Mask (1994) is the trickiest this side of Bali, and his turn in Dumb and Dumber (1995) is a wondrous ballet of cretinousness. Carrey is the most inventive screen clown since Steve Martin–only less deliberate, and also less protected, more prone to fall on his face when a gag doesn’t fly. If Martin can seem like a clown so hungry for approval that he sweats through his comic mask, Carrey’s vulnerability comes from donning mask after mask in a desperate attempt to make contact. He recalls the comedians on the TV show Make Me Laugh, who work with grim single-mindedness to break through the stone-faced reserve of contestants. Goofy faces notwithstanding, there’s nothing glib in Carrey’s routines. Performing for his life, he’s the most exposed of performers.

He’s even more exposed in The Truman Show. As Truman, Carrey has to show that the masks he has worn all his life no longer express what he’s feeling. Dropping them–along with the rest of his schtick–makes him seem helpless, childlike, bewildered, naked. The movie might have been a soulless exercise without him. With him, it has an authentic tremulousness, and also a dread, as if Pinocchio needed to take on Gepetto and Jiminy Crickett to become a real boy.

It’s fashionable to dump on the creakily old-fashioned thriller playwright Frederick Knott these days, but I’ve always loved his Wait Until Dark and (especially) Dial M for Murder. Knott is a maestro of thriller minutiae. In Dial M, the key to the story’s resolution is just that … a key, which a husband removes from his wife’s key ring to leave in the mailbox for the man he has hired to murder her. Alfred Hitchcock filmed Knott’s play in 1954 with Ray Milland and Grace Kelly. It looks OK on television, but it’s marvelous when shown in its original 3-D–when all those props literally pop out of the screen.

A Perfect Murder, directed by Andrew Davis (The Fugitive, 1993), is a very loose adaptation. It has been sexed up, opened out, and finished off with a disappointing bang-bang climax, but it’s still good fun–partly because screenwriter Patrick Smith Kelly respects Knott’s construction enough to keep the machinations with the key and partly because the new cast is sensational. Could there be a better role for Michael Douglas than an aging, heartless cuckold watching his wife and wealth slip away? The addiction to opulence, the fierce set of the jaw, the bulging eyes, and seething demeanor: Douglas has never seemed more at home, not even in Wall Street (1987). As his young wife, Gwyneth Paltrow gives Grace Kelly a run for her money in the drop-dead-gorgeous department, and her acting is better than ever. Life seems to be breaking Paltrow in a bit, and it’s making her seem halfway human.

Viggo Mortensen, who plays Paltrow’s painter-lover, has been a star-in-the-making for years. Check out Brian DePalma’s virtuosic Carlito’s Way (1993)–that’s the Swede Mortensen, with dark hair, as the hapless Hispanic paraplegic whom the cops wire in an effort to entrap Al Pacino. I worried for the first half of A Perfect Murder that audiences would see this mumbling, affectless, pretty-boy and think Mortensen wasn’t much of an actor, the way they only saw beefcake when they looked at Nick Nolte in The Deep (1977). But Mortensen knows how to tantalize. The part is barely filled-in, and that’s how he leaves it. He respects its mystery, its dark heart. You never know which way he’ll go, and you never take your eyes off him.

For Whit Stillman and, as far as I know, no one else on the planet, the discos of the early ‘80s were salons with a back beat–places where men and women could get dressed up to gyrate a little and then sit around saying twitty pseudointellectual things, the music conveniently dropping a notch so as not to force them to shout. The context for The Last Days of Disco is vaguely satirical, but Stillman gives no evidence that he could write his characters any other way; these people seem to be the only sort he knows. In his first film, Metropolitan (1990), he chose never to move the camera: Each shot was a tableaux (barely) vivant, and (tiny) form meshed with (tiny) content to suggest a larger vision of the stasis of the privileged classes. Here, the camera moves a little but the point of view is frozen: It’s Stillman who seems in stasis now. This is a rhythmless, stupefying work. A person with no discernible pulse ought not to be directing a movie about disco. I forced myself to stay for almost 90 minutes and then decided someone ought to boogie.