Their Best Role is a weekly series here on Cinematical where we select an actor or actress and the role we think is their all time best. You can find it here every Wednesday.
Picking Jim Carrey's best role is a lot easier than, say, escaping out the rear of a mechanical rhino. Without failing to give due credit to the hyper-animated slapstick of Carrey's deceptively effortless early work, there's an uncanny perfection to his embodiment of Truman Burbank, a casting kismet that proved as visionary as it appeared unconventional. There was a spirited genius evident in Carrey as early as 1988's 'Earth Girls are Easy,' an unexpectedly hilarious documentary / musical that chronicles how the actor known as Jeff Goldblum first came to Earth.
Over the seven years that followed, Carrey pioneered a unique brand of silly slapstick, launching into super-stardom with modern classics like 'Ace Ventura: Pet Detective' and 'Liar Liar.' It wasn't until 1997 and 'The Truman Show' that Carrey embraced a "serious" role, and his decision to do so inevitably raised a bunch of questions. Questions like: "Can the great director Peter Weir manage to keep the funnyman in check?" "Is a film about reality television too timely to be anything more than a curiosity?" And: "Why doesn't this star Matthew McConaughey?"
We know now that Carrey's performance in 'The Truman Show' paved the way for memorable roles in weightier fare like 'Man on the Moon,' 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,' and this week's long-delayed release of 'I Love You Phillip Morris' (which apparently is not the bi-curious sequel to 'I Love You, Beth Cooper' that the world is breathlessly anticipating) but the novelty of the comedian working against type was kind of mind-blowing at the time. But here we are 13 years later -- complete with full understanding of his range and an earned cynicism regarding the pervasiveness of modern media -- and Seahaven's most guileless resident is as moving as ever.
Truman Burbank might be the most famous man alive, a matter about which he is blithely unaware. Shortly after his birth he was selected to star in television history's most ambitious and all-consuming reality project, a perpetually broadcasting show in which Truman's every move is relayed live to a global audience. His idyllic home of Seahaven (a stainless utopia more relentlessly pleasant than 'Pleasantville') is actually an enormous domed set, a multi-billion dollar operation outfitted with thousands of hidden cameras, populated entirely by actors, and controlled from above by Christof (Ed Harris), the show's bereted creator.
As the world watches Truman come of age in real-time (and become their collective son in the process), Christof and co. must conspire to subdue their star's curiosity about the world beyond Seahaven, a feat they accomplish in ways both silly (posters at the local travel agency which suggest that approximately 100% of all planes are destroyed by lightning), and deep-seeded (Truman's father is "killed" in a storm while on a fishing trip, thus instilling the boy with an implacable fear of open water). But just as Truman seems resigned to the tranquil solipsism of his scripted existence, a spotlight rains from the sky.
Truman's world is quite literally falling apart, but the brilliance of Carrey's performance is that he plays him instead as a man who's finally piecing it all together. 'The Truman Show' is a resonantly poignant (and prophetic) tale about nothing less than the authenticity of the human experience, but the film is only free to explore such lofty stuff because Carrey provides the story an immovable emotional anchor. It's a movie about everything its hero doesn't know anything about, and Carrey understood that for Truman to have a decent shot at being plausible and true he'd have to approach the character with a childlike tunnel-vision, treating the high-concept premise as if it were merely some fancy noise on the periphery of a coming-of-age saga.
Through Carrey, Truman is essentially just an overgrown boy rebelling against the forced confines of adulthood (in a way it's a lot like 'Jack,' but without the sound of Francis Ford Coppola softly weeping in the background). His job is in jeopardy and his wife is desperate for a child, but despite all of the show's contrived attempts to stymie his sense of wonder, Truman can't fight the feeling that there's more to life than what he knows of it. Carrey-invented bits like the "Planet Trumania" mirror sequence beautifully articulate the head-space of a guy stuck between carefree joy and a world a few sizes too small -- when he starts to crack, we want so badly for him to escape, even if that means we won't be able to watch him anymore.
And the most important thing is that we want to watch him. 'The Truman Show' is an electric amalgam of disparate genres, but its nature as a paranoid thriller is what keeps it chugging along through the frenzied 2nd act. Unlike most paranoid thrillers, however, we know from the start exactly why the hero has good reason to be suspicious, and Weir has to rely on the audience's fascination with Truman to overcome this preordained lack of suspense. Carrey's judicious deployment of the elastic face and manic energy that made him famous not only allow Truman to be a winning fool, but also affords the surreal premise with a heart and desperation that allows it to blossom into more than a bloated episode of 'The Twilight Zone.'
We don't hate Truman when he violently confronts his wife, we don't mock him when he's completely seized by his phobias, and we don't want him back when he's gone. Truman Burbank is the most far-fetched character that Jim Carrey has ever played, but also the one most like the rest of us. That Carrey was able to split the difference makes Truman Burbank his best role -- the role of a lifetime.
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