Jim Carrey is one of the single most successful people who have ever worked in the entertainment industry. He was the first actor to ever receive an astonishing $20 million for a single film, the vastly underrated Ben Stiller film The Cable Guy. He racked up a staggering string of hit films in the 1990s like Ace Venture: Pet Detective and Dumb and Dumber that established him as one of the premiere comic actors of his generation. He even is a pretty successful painter. But perhaps the greatest achievement in Jim Carrey’s career is to do what so many comedians never manage to do and crossed over into dramatic roles. His first real dramatic film is also his single highest-rated movie on Rotten Tomatoes: the 1998 science-fiction drama The Truman Show, currently streaming on HBO Max.
The Truman Show was released just after Jim Carrey’s run of ludicrously successful films in the mid-1990s, including his colorful turn as The Riddler in Batman Forever and as a lying liar who can no longer lie in Liar Liar. The only film that stumbled in this series of blockbusters was The Cable Guy, whose dark tone and thriller aspects confused audiences who came expecting Jim Carrey talking out of his rear end, but with cable television involved. But The Truman Show was a revelation at the time, the first time audience had truly seen the actor attempting something dramatic (and succeeding at it).
The essential premise of The Truman Show is simple: Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) is a man who has unknowingly lived his entire life in a television series called The Truman Show. The movie holds off for an entire hour of runtime before it explains (via an interview with show creator Christof, played by an inscrutable Ed Harris) that he was selected as a newborn to live in the largest soundstage ever built. Truman’s hometown of Seahaven is a constructed, hyperreal world (the real-life Florida planned community of Seaside) complete with an enormous moon that serves as Christof’s observation deck. His entire life is the single most popular show in the world, with millions of fans following his every move from infancy on. It is simultaneously terrifying, dramatic, and plausible.
That is not to say that The Truman Show does not have comedic elements. It could rightly be described as a reality television satire, except that it predated the early 2000s boom that would largely define the genre. Director Peter Weir adroitly uses Jim Carrey’s established comedic persona in a much sweeter way than The Cable Guy had. Where that movie essentially placed Jim Carrey as a barely stable attention-seeker in the real world and had people be creeped out by this wacko’s behavior, The Truman Show posits his character of Truman Burbank as a slightly goofy, gentle guy who becomes creeped out by the constant attention he can somehow feel. It is a masterful inversion of what we expect on some level from Jim Carrey. Weir was so sure that Carrey was necessary for the role that he delayed filming a year so the actor could finish filming Liar Liar. For his part, Carrey was so enthused with the film that he took an $8 million salary cut to star in it.
The actual plot of the film involves Jim Carrey slowly beginning to question the reality of the world around him, while the legions of actors, stagehands, and set dressers do everything they can to persuade him not to follow his insane theory that happens to be true. There is a clever running theme in the movie that the people who maintain this false world are simultaneously everywhere and omniscient, yet not particularly good at hiding the truth when Truman looks directly. There are multiple moments in which Truman comes across extras at craft services when he opens a door unexpectedly or notices that a picture of Mount Rushmore looks oddly fake or questions the intrusive product placement his fake wife (Laura Linney) is constantly shilling under the guise of conversation.
It helps that the movie is stacked with a ridiculously talented group of actors. In addition to Jim Carrey and Ed Harris, The Truman Show stars the great Noah Emmerich as Truman’s friend, who has spent his life conflicted about both being an actor paid to be his best friend and his actual lifelong best friend, Laura Linney as his “wife” who can barely hide her distaste for him, and Holland Taylor as his “mother.” The script was written by Andrew Niccol (who had already made a splash for writing and directing the Ethan Hawke/Uma Thurman dystopian film Gattaca), reportedly as more of a straight science fiction story until Peter Weir came on board to mold the film (taking over for Brian De Palma).
The Truman Show currently holds an excellent 95% on Rotten Tomatoes, made a whopping $264 million at the box office (in 1998 dollars, mind you) and was nominated for three Academy Awards. Jim Carrey was snubbed, but the movie is a clear turning point in his career and in his public perception. Shortly after, he would go on to star in Man on the Moon, The Majestic, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. While he starred in movies like How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Bruce Almighty in the same time period (also known as Jim Carrey’s work ethic years), The Truman Show ensured that he could be taken seriously as an actor. Even if he’s still up for a Sonic the Hedgehog or two these days.