FILM REVIEW; So, What's Wrong With This Picture?

Published: June 5, 1998

trumania (troo-MAY-nee-uh) n. 1. obsessive national interest in the surreal ordinariness of Truman Burbank, as spurred by the 30-year television show chronicling his every move. Manifested by a willingness to find the most nondescript of Truman's experiences more poignant and meaningful than one's own. Truman bars, T shirts, baseball caps, greatest hits videotape and sleeping scenes indicate the rare depths of media madness behind this fascination. 2. An imaginary planet, playfully named by Truman Burbank. 3. Euphoric reception afforded to ''The Truman Show'' as an earthshaking millennial event arriving today on movie screens. Peter Weir's must-see new film is guaranteed Oscar bait and delectably clever entertainment, but hosannas and cartwheels are over the top.

Jim Carrey's instantly iconic performance as the sweet, unsuspecting Truman will give his career deserved new impetus, but the real star of ''The Truman Show'' is its premise. What if our taste for trivia and voyeurism led to the purgatory of a whole life lived as show-biz illusion? What if that life became not only the ultimate paranoid fantasy but also achieved pulse-quickening heights of narcissism? As Truman Burbank is astonished to discover, he lives in a world where he is the main attraction and every other living creature, man, woman or dog, exists only as a walk-on. Keeping Truman happily duped is all they're there for. Nothing matters more than Truman within the pathologically cheery confines of Truman's world.

''The Truman Show'' has an inspired screenplay by Andrew Niccol, whose own ''Gattaca'' had the same transfixing sci-fi intensity. Each shows a man living a phenomenally intricate lie. (The hero of ''Gattaca'' conceals his genetic makeup.) But ''The Truman Show'' unfolds on a much grander scale. The sparklingly antiseptic island community called Seahaven (actually Seaside, Fla.) is part of a huge stage set. It encompasses sun, moon, forest, ocean, bridge and about 5,000 hidden cameras that follow Truman everywhere he goes.

Product plugs are everywhere, since they account for the revenues of the wildly popular ''Truman Burbank Show.'' So the same elderly twins edge Truman up against an advertising billboard every morning as he heads to his desk job (where there's a tiny camera hidden inside his pencil sharpener). He drives to work (in a car with concealed dashboard camera) after waving merrily to his neighbors, who live in one of Seahaven's architecturally tidy, strenuously pleasant dwellings. Truman himself lives in a houseful of dimples with his too-perfect wife Meryl (Laura Linney), who coyly drops the brand names of cocoa and lawn mowers. She can exclaim ''I made macaroni!'' in fiendishly ecstatic fashion.

Mr. Weir, known for the thoughtfulness and idiosyncrasy of his films and for guiding stellar actors into some of their best work, must handle the tricky job of gradually poking holes in this deception with optimum timing. What should the audience know about Truman's situation, and when should the audience know it? As the curtain begins to rise on the lies in Truman's life, nagging little inconsistencies abound (some shots look as though they came from Seahaven's oddly placed cameras; many don't), but by and large the film is extremely witty in its ways of blowing the television show's cover. Early on, Truman is puzzled by a piece of lighting equipment that falls from the sky. Later, he is sprinkled by his own little rainstorm. And when Truman moves, the stage rainstorm moves, too.

The film supposes that suddenly, for the first time in 30 years, Truman is beginning to notice something amiss. The apparent reason is the party-crashing appearance of the actor who posed as his father, and who was supposedly lost at sea. Thanks to that trauma, Truman has been inculcated with a fear of water to keep him from leaving Seahaven. (Posters at Seahaven's travel agency raise the prospects of terrorists, disease, wild animals and airplanes struck by lightning. As a young schoolboy, in one of the film's wiliest little touches, he is heard exclaiming, ''I'd like to be an explorer like the great Magellan!'' Then a teacher chimes in hastily: ''Oh! You're too late! There's nothing left to explore!'')

Truman's ersatz father turns up looking like a derelict in the middle of Seahaven, where everyone else resembles a wholesome extra in a 1950's situation comedy. But no one notices him until Truman does, because these actors have no idea how to react spontaneously when a crisis occurs. They take all their marching orders from Christof (Ed Harris), the ''televisionary'' who created Truman and his show and quite literally presides from on high. Mr. Harris plays this pivotal role with a sinister, laid-back authority that amounts to the film's most satirical aspect, since it so easily links divinity with hip, media-savvy grandiosity. (''Cue the sun!'') That would have been clear even if Christof had been given a less rib-nudging name.

''The Truman Show,'' which tells such an engrossing story that it amounts to the best virtual beach book of the season, draws its suspense from Truman's rising disillusionment and anger. That truly makes Mr. Carrey the ideal actor for the role, since his beaming affability so often conveys an edge of secret fury. Warm, affecting and refreshingly shtickless, he occupies center stage here through sheer, beguiling force of personality. And Mr. Carrey is charismatic enough to make Trumania a nearly plausible conceit. He intensifies ordinary emotions so powerfully that perhaps this guy's Warholian 15 minutes, on a television show of halfway satirical blandness, could have lasted 30 years.

But the public fascination with Truman Burbank, like the horizon around Seahaven, doesn't quite lead anywhere. ''We accept the reality of the world with which we're presented; it's as simple as that,'' intones Christof. The story's central notions really are that simple, and in the end they're too slender to sustain a film as ambitious as this. Once its premise is set forth, ready-made for easy pontification, ''The Truman Show'' doesn't go on to echo the prophetic intuitiveness of ''Network'' or even send up the lurid voyeurism of popular culture today. The latter part of the film, depicting Truman's rebellion and providing him with a perfect final line, is much more conventionally conceived than its splendid start.

Beyond Ms. Linney, whose dazzling domestic falseness is one of the film's most resonant ingredients, the major players around Truman include radiant Natascha McElhone as the sweetheart who got away (under suitably bizarre circumstances), Holland Taylor as Truman's actressy mother and Noah Emmerich as the best friend who shows up to deliver product plugs for a certain brand of beer. Peter Biziou's cinematography envelops all of them in bright color and flawlessly unnatural scenery.

In a film with a setting that becomes a character in its own right, the little delights of Seahaven are everywhere, from fashion sense a la Norman Rockwell to the ''It's a Wonderful Life'' clone on television. Wonderfully dishonest-looking extras are everywhere, like the driver who can't drive when Truman tries to leave town on a Chicago bus. Conspicuously included among the passengers are -- but of course -- a soldier and two nuns.

''The Truman Show'' is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). It includes mild profanity and fleeting violence. Older children bred on television should enjoy it as both clever gamesmanship and food for thought.

Directed by Peter Weir; written by Andrew Niccol; director of photography, Peter Biziou; edited by William Anderson and Lee Smith; music by Burkhard Dallwitz; production designer, Dennis Gassner; produced by Scott Rudin, Mr. Niccol, Edward S. Feldman and Adam Schroeder; released by Paramount Pictures. Running time: 104 minutes. This film is rated PG.

WITH: Jim Carrey (Truman Burbank), Laura Linney (Meryl), Noah Emmerich (Marlon), Natascha McElhone (Lauren/Sylvia), Holland Taylor (Truman's Mother), Brian Delate (Truman's Father), Ed Harris (Christof), Paul Giamatti and Adam Tomei (Control Room Directors), Harry Shearer (Mike Michaelson), Una Damon (Chloe), O-Lan Jones and Krista Lynn Landolfi (Bar Waitresses), Terry Camilleri (Man in Bathtub) and Dona Hardy and Jeanette Miller (Senior Citizens).